Pennsylvania schools spying on students using laptop webcams, claims lawsuit

Class-action suit alleges schools remotely activate webcams on school-issued notebooks

A suburban Philadelphia school district remotely activates the cameras in school-provided laptops to spy on students in their homes, a lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday alleged.

According to the lawsuit filed by a high school student and his parents, the Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa. has spied on students and families by "indiscriminate use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District."

Approximately 1,800 students at the district's two high schools have been given laptops as part of a state- and federally-funded "one-to-one" student-to-laptop initiative.

Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., said they first found out about the alleged spying last November after their son Blake was accused by a Harriton High School official of "improper behavior in his home" and shown a photograph taken by his laptop.

An assistant principal at Harriton later confirmed that the district could remotely activate the webcam in students' laptops. "Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through [Assistant Principal] Ms. Matsko, that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a student's personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer," the lawsuit stated.

The Robbins claimed that the district did not tell them beforehand that their son's laptop webcam could be activated remotely, and added that there was no mention of the functionality in any of the documentation they received or on the district's Web site.

And the privacy of non-students has been violated, the Robbins said. "By virtue of the fact that the webcam can be remotely activated at any time by the School District, the webcam will capture anything happening in the room in which the laptop computer is located, regardless of whether the student is sitting at the computer and using it," the lawsuit charged.

The suit accuses the school district of violating the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and other federal and state statues, including the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act.

Mark Haltzman of the law firm Lamm Rubenstone, and the Robbins' attorney, did not return a call for comment. A spokesman for the Lower Merion School District said early Thursday that the district had only found out about the suit hours before, and so was not able to immediately comment on the case.

If the lawsuit is granted class-action status, other students in the district and their families would be able to join the action.

The Robbins family has asked for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, and demanded that the court issue an injunction barring the district from activating students' laptop cameras.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies