School district sued over webcam 'spying'

In a chilling reminder of what's possible in this all-seeing, privacy-invading digital world, a Pennsylvania couple has filed a lawsuit against a school district, accusing them of spying on children by remotely activating webcams on school-issued laptops.

They say their son was told off by teachers for "engaging in improper behavior in his home" and that the evidence was an image from his webcam.

The Lower Merion School District gave the laptops to 1,800 students at its two high schools, with the aim of providing access to school resources around the clock. Unbeknown to many students and their parents, the laptops carried a tracking device, which could be used to remotely activate the webcam.

In a letter posted on the school district's web site, Schools Superintendent Christopher McGinley gave details of the security feature, which he said was activated only if a laptop was reported missing.

"This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever," McGinley wrote.

However, the lawsuit, which was filed by Michael and Holly Robbins on behalf of their son Blake and the other children who received laptops, claims that the school district invaded their privacy and the school district is guilty of putting their children under covert surveillance.

According to the Robbins family, an assistant principal at Blake's high school confirmed that the school district "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."

It also claims some of the images captured "may consist of minors in compromising or embarrassing positions, including various stages of dress and undress".

The school district has since disabled the security-tracking program and is undertaking a review of the existing policies for laptop use. It is also taking a look at any other "technology areas in which the intersection of privacy and security may come into play".

Schools have long struggled with how to regulate student behavior when it comes to new technologies, with controversies arising over everything from sexting to posting abusive comments on social networks like Facebook and MySpace. Clearly, the hi-tech tracking and surveillance tools that are now emerging are going to provide a fresh round of headaches.

Do schools have the right to monitor how their computer equipment is being used at home? Do they have the right to regulate student behavior off-campus or outside of school hours? What about cyber bullying? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom!

Comment by Bob Bragdon, posted 2/22/2010, 10:44 AM:

Unfortunately this is a problem that is going to arise when districts provide laptops to students. As when a business provides technology resources to its employees there is a certain level of liability. I can imagine the same parents suing the school district if their child were accessing inappropriate content with the school-supplied laptop. As with businesses, schools need to have clear usage policies in place, and communicate those policies on a regular basis.
Comment by Isabel Cook, posted 2/21/2010, 12:06 AM:

I can't believe the school would actually agree to equip the laptops with this kind of technology. They had to know, full well that even if it was meant to protect against theft, that it had the opportunity to invade privacy. What an atrocious decision!
Comment by Ann, posted 2/20/2010, 4:40 PM:

I knew this would be a problem when webcams came along. Too much peeking, to many noseys.
Comment by Robyn's Online World, posted 2/19/2010, 5:04 PM:

Just another example of school districts making their own rules and getting carried away with everything. They can do whatever they want and they only way you might have a chance of stopping them is to sue. It's ridiculous!
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