A school district in suburban Philadelphia supposedly thought it devised the perfect anti-theft device for its student-issued laptops—until parents discovered it involved secretly using a Web camera to snap photos of their kids, even in their bedrooms at home.
Blake J. Robbins and his parents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The lawsuit alleges the district violated wiretapping and privacy statutes and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures,” by taking clandestine photos of Blake’s room in 2009.
A few days after the lawsuit was filed on February 11, the school district admitted in a letter to parents its “security-tracking program” for school-issued laptops included the ability to activate the Web cam secretly from a distance.
The district said it was immediately disabling that function and conducting a “review of security procedures to help safeguard the protection of privacy, including a review of the instances in which the security software was activated.”
But the damage had already been done. The incident quickly ballooned into a national story in which privacy advocates cited it as an egregious example of government abuse of power and the public trust.
Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in technology issues, said the revelation was “creepy” and “chilling”—even though he was initially skeptical the story was true.
“This kind of spying is in such flagrant violation of so many statutes that I thought surely one of the dozens of people involved in setting it up would have piped up and said, ‘You know, we could all go to jail for this,’ ” Sanchez said. “Are we confident that none of these schools employ anyone who might succumb to the temptation to check in on teenagers getting out of the shower in the morning? How would we ever know?”
The school claims it employed the surveillance software—which it says it has used to take 43 surreptitious snapshots—for “only the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen, or missing laptop.” Yet the incident that triggered the lawsuit involved the school telling Blake Robbins’ parents about activity unrelated to any theft of a laptop.
Candy Mistaken for Drugs
According to the lawsuit, Harriton High School Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko told Robbins’ parents on Nov. 11, 2009 that their son was engaging in potentially illegal activity in his bedroom. Matsko “cited as evidence,” says the suit, a picture of Blake’s room taken by the Web cam of the school-issued laptop. Matsko allegedly pointed to what she thought was illegal drugs in the picture.
In truth, according to the student and the parents, what looked like pills were pieces of Mike & Ike candy.
On February 23, Matsko read a statement she said would help correct “many falsehoods and misperceptions” about what happened with the school-issued laptop in the Robbins home.
“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 in the home. And I never would,” Matsko said.
The Robbins family stood by its story, however, sending 15-year-old Blake out to read an 11-page response to Matsko that same day. Robbins said Matsko’s denial doesn’t change the fact “someone accessed my Web cam and provided Ms. Matsko with a screenshot and a Web cam picture of me alone in my bedroom.”
Even in announcing a review of its security procedures, the Lower Merion School District trumpeted its “one-to-one high school laptop initiative,” saying it is “proud of the fact that we are a leader in providing laptops to every high school student as part of our instructional program.”
Calling for Transparency
Braden Cox, policy counsel for Washington, DC-based NetChoice, an organization promoting consumer choice and market forces for the Internet, said he’s troubled it took such a blatant alleged violation of a student’s privacy—and one admitted by the district without the realization it was doing anything wrong—to put the spying to a stop.
“There’s a lot of talk about transparency and privacy online, and often this is focused on adults and the Internet,” Cox said. “But let’s not forget about our children in the schools. Children have a reasonable expectation of privacy in school. And with this laptop case, we are talking about privacy away from school, where privacy interests are paramount.
“Parents need to know with exact specificity what remote tracking mechanisms schools employ with laptops their kids bring into the home,” he said. “We can’t sacrifice the sanctity of privacy for the security of a few laptops.”
The lawsuit against the school district states the Robbins family believes Harriton High School violated the sophomore’s Fourth Amendment rights. The constitutional protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” stipulates a government agency must obtain a court-approved warrant establishing probable cause for believing a crime was committed, before carrying out a search of personal property.
Carl Gipson, director of small business, technology, and telecommunications research at the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center, says he finds it hard to argue the school wasn’t taking its desire to protect loaned school property beyond reasonable bounds and expectations of privacy.
“This case certainly smacks of a violation of privacy,” Gipson said. “The idea that a computer user can be unknowingly and physically spied upon is pretty reprehensible—particularly since the victim in this case was a minor.”