Federal judge orders Pa. schools to stop laptop spying

ACLU joins case as 'friend of the court,' claims schools violated students' 4th Amendment rights

A federal judge yesterday ordered the Pennsylvania school district accused of spying on its students to stop activating the cameras in school-issued MacBook laptops.

Earlier in the day, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had asked the same court to let the organization file an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," brief in support of the 16-year-old high school student's demand that his school be barred from turning on the cameras.

Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois issued a consent order that prevents Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa., from "remotely activating any and all web cams embedded in lap top [sic] computers issued to students ... or from remotely taking screenshots of such computers."

Lower Merion spokesman Doug Young said today that the district would fully cooperate with the court order.

Last week, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., on behalf of their son Blake, sued Lower Merion, accusing it of spying on students and students' families using the iSight webcams in the MacBook laptops issued to each high school student in the district.

According to the original complaint, Blake Robbins was accused by a Harriton High School assistant principal of "improper behavior in his home" and shown a photograph taken by his laptop as evidence. In an appearance on network television last Saturday, Robbins said he was accused by the assistant principal of selling drugs and taking pills, but he claimed the pictures taken by his computer's camera showed him eating candy.

The Robbins family asked DuBois on Friday to issue a restraining order and injunction blocking the district from using student laptop' cameras to trace lost or stolen machines. Although school officials said they had disabled the feature last week, the Robbins weren't satisfied. "There can be no assurances that the School District will disable the use of the remote webcam or, once deactivated, make an internal decision to reactivate the webcam," their motion argued.

The consent order, which was agreed to by lawyers of both parties, also prevents Lower Merion officials from communicating with students and parents regarding the lawsuit; if the district wants to update parents on the case, it must submit the text of the announcement to the Robbins' attorneys at least six hours before sending out the information.

In their Friday filing, the Robbins accused school district employees, including the superintendent, Christopher McGinley, with making "loud speaker announcements to all students allegedly commenting on the litigation, making false and untrue accusations [and] disparaging the Plaintiffs."

The school district must also preserve all electronic evidence, including any photographs taken by remotely activated laptop cameras. Blake Robbins' MacBook is also to be examined by a third-party computer forensics expert, DuBois said.

Earlier Monday, the ACLU of Pennsylvania asked DuBois to let it participate in the case, arguing that the school district violated the Fourth Amendment rights of the plaintiffs.

"No government official, be it police officer or school principal, can enter a private home, physically or electronically, without an invitation or warrant," said Vic Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's legal director, in a statement. "In this case, the officials are not just entering the foyer, but a child's bedroom. Assuming the allegations are true, this is an egregious invasion of privacy."

By the admission of the school district, technology support staff activated student laptops' webcams 42 times thus far this school year in attempts to recover lost or stolen systems. Unlike most theft recovery software, the LANRev product used by Lower Merion allows local administrators to trigger recovery tools, including the laptop camera, which is used to snap photographs of the potential thief.

LANRev's seller, Absolute Software -- which is best known for its LoJack for Laptops recovery software and service -- said it would soon issue an update to software to disable the camera activation feature.

Also yesterday, the Philadelphia office of the FBI confirmed that it, along with other agencies, is investigating the charges raised by the Robbins. "We intend to work as a team with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, Montgomery County detectives, and the Lower Merion Police Department to determine if any crimes were committed," said U.S. Attorney Michael Levy and FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Janice Fedarcyk in a joint statement Monday.

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.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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