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Student says school webcam spied on him at home

By Nicole Bliman, CNN
Pennsylvania's Lower Merion School District, which faces a federal lawsuit, is proud of its laptop program, a rep says.
Pennsylvania's Lower Merion School District, which faces a federal lawsuit, is proud of its laptop program, a rep says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pennsylvania parents sue school district, school chief, board over son's laptop
  • Lawsuit alleges district unlawfully used its ability to access a webcam remotely
  • Suit: Son accused of engaging in "improper behavior" at home that school-issued webcam captured
  • District spokesman: School only remotely accesses webcam if laptop reported stolen, lost
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(CNN) -- Pennsylvania parents are suing their son's school, alleging it watched him through his laptop's webcam while he was at home and unaware he was being observed.

Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley are suing the Lower Merion School District, its board of directors and the superintendent. The parents allege the district unlawfully used its ability to access a webcam remotely on their son's district-issued laptop computer.

The lawsuit seeking class-action status was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The suit said that on November 11, an assistant principal at Harriton High School told the plaintiffs' son that he was caught engaging in "improper behavior" in his home and it was captured in an image via the webcam.

According to the Robbinses' complaint, neither they nor their son, Blake, were informed of the school's ability to access the webcam remotely at any time. It is unclear what the boy was doing in his room when the webcam was activated or if any punishment was given out.

Doug Young, a spokesman for the Lower Merion School District, said the district would only remotely access a laptop if it were reported to be lost, stolen or missing.

Young said if there were such a report, the district first would have to request access from its technology and security department and receive authorization. Then it would use the built-in security feature to take over the laptop and see whatever was in the webcam's field of vision, potentially allowing it to track down the missing computer.

Young said parents and students were not explicitly told about this built-in security feature.

To receive the laptop, the family had to sign an "acceptable-use" agreement. To take the laptop home, the family also would have to buy insurance for the computer.

In an "acceptable-use" agreement, the families are made aware of the school's ability to "monitor" the hardware, he said, but it stops short of explicitly explaining the security feature. He termed that a mistake.

Young added that mistakes might be made when combining technology and education in a cutting-edge way.

All 2,300 students at the district's two high schools were offered laptops to "enhance opportunities for ongoing collaboration and ensure that all students have 24/7 access to school-based resources," according to a message on the superintendent's Web site, which the suit quoted.

Young said the district is proud of the laptop program and the ability to close the technology gap between students who have computers at home and those who don't. But he acknowledged schools will have to take a step back to re-evaluate the policies and procedures surrounding the program.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania isn't involved in the litigation, but its director, Vic Walczak, criticized the school district's action.

"Neither police nor school officials can enter a private home, physically or electronically, without an invitation or a warrant. The school district's clandestine electronic eavesdropping violates constitutional privacy rights, intrudes on parents' right to raise their children and may even be criminal under state and federal wiretapping laws," Walczak said "... George Orwell's '1984' is an overused metaphor, but it applies here in spades. Part of the school officials' punishment should be to retake ninth-grade civics class."

Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation who specializes in electronic privacy, also said the school may have broken federal wire-tapping laws. He called the school district's action "foolish and dangerous," saying the matter could prove to be a warning to other districts.

Multiple requests for further comment from the Robbinses' attorney, Mark Haltzman of Lamm Rubenstone LLC, went unanswered.

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