'Spygate' teenager demands webcam pix from Pa. school

Assistant principal, high school sophomore trade statements about laptop surveillance

The suburban Philadelphia teenager who has accused his high school of spying on him in his home using the camera in his school-issued laptop called on school district officials to hand over copies of all photographs snapped by students' MacBooks.

"Our counsel has requested immediate access to all webcam pictures and screenshots to determine whether the school district's representation to the number of times it was used, and the purposes for which it was used, is accurate," said Blake Robbins late Wednesday. Robbins read a prepared statement in front of reporters and television cameras outside his Penn Valley, Pa. home.

Last week, Robbins' parents, Michael and Holly Robbins, sued Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa., saying that the district had spied on students and students' families using the iSight webcams in the MacBook laptops issued to approximately 2,300 high school students.

The Robbins' complaint said 16-year-old Blake Robbins had been accused by a Harriton High School assistant principal of selling drugs and popping pills, and shown a photograph taken by his laptop as evidence. Robbins told the school administrator the photograph showed him eating candy.

Before a federal judge issued a gag order Monday preventing school officials from discussing the case with parents or students without prior authorization, the district had acknowledged that cameras had been remotely activated by technology personnel 42 times so far this school year. The cameras were switched on only as part of efforts to recover lost or stolen machines , said Christopher McGinley, superintendent of Lower Merion.

The Robbins family has denied that they reported Blake's laptop as lost or stolen.

In his statement, Robbins said that the district has refused to hand over copies of the photographs and screenshots taken by students' MacBooks, and urged other students and their parents to press officials to do so, if only to quicken the pace of the lawsuit to save the district money.

Robbins also addressed comments made earlier that day by Lindy Matsko, the Harriton High School assistant vice principal that he said accused him of drug dealing.

In an emotionally-charged appearance Wednesday, Matsko said she had never monitored a student on a laptop camera and that she has never had access to the trigger for the district's remote camera activation.

"At no point in time did I have the ability to access any webcam through security tracking software," Matsko said in a news conference Wednesday during which she read a statement but took no questions. "At no time have I ever monitored a student via a laptop webcam, nor have I ever authorized the monitoring of a student via a laptop webcam, either at school or within the home. And I never would."

Matsko did not say whether she used photographs taken from Robbins' MacBook camera to accuse the sophomore of "improper behavior," the incident that sparked the lawsuit. "I find the allegations and implications that I have or ever would engage in such conduct to be offensive, abhorrent and outrageous," Matsko said.

Although in his statement Robbins called Matsko "a good educator and a good person," he noted that she didn't directly refute his claims that she confronted him with a photograph taken by his laptop. "Nothing in Ms. Matsko's statement is inconsistent with what we state in our complaint," Robbins said. "She did not deny that she saw the webcam picture of me in my home, she only denies that she is the one who activated the webcam."

Robbins said he was in his bedroom when the school district activated his laptop's camera.

"This is not about Ms. Matsko or us," he said. "The decision to place the software on the students computers is the issue at hand."

Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Jan DuBois issued a consent order that bars Lower Merion from activating cameras in the school-supplied computers. He also ordered the district to clear all statements to students and their families with the Robbins' attorney, and told officials to preserve all electronic evidence, including any photographs taken by the MacBooks.

Lower Marion School District officials did not immediately return a call for comment on Robbins' demand for copies of all webcam photos and screenshots.


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 .

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Knowledge Center.

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