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Students Claim Laptop Cameras Spy on Families

According to a claim filed against Lower Merion (suburb of Philadelphia, PA) School District in federal court, the school district used school provided laptop webcams to spy on students in their homes, leaving the families to be potentially caught in compromising positions. The webcams were activated without the students’ or parents’ knowledge.

Big%20Brother%20Spy%204.jpgAccording to plaintiffs Michael and Holly Robbins, the laptop webcams could have captured students and other members of the family in embarrassing situations, including undressing. After learning of the webcam activations, students such as Tom Halperin, 15, started placing masking tape over the top of the webcam.

Should the allegations be proven, the charges could amount to illegal electronic wiretapping, said Witold J. Walzak, who works for American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, though the union is not involved in the lawsuit. According to Walzak, who is legal director, the school is unable to enter a home electronically, just as police are not able to do so. The lawsuit seeks class action status.

The school spokesman, Doug Young states that the school is committed to the student’s privacy and could not state if the school had the ability to activate the webcams remotely. The school provided each of its 2300 students with the laptops. The city is affluent and prides itself with the technology initiatives it has taken in recent years.

The Robbins family learned of the activation of the webcams after the assistant principal at Harriton High School told the son that school officials believed he engaged in inappropriate behavior at home, though the lawsuit did not specifically state what that behavior was. There is evidence in the school’s use as a photograph taken from the webcam was made available to the student as evidence of his behavior at home. The assistant principal, Lindy Matsko confirmed to the father that the school did have the ability to activate the cameras remotely, alleges the lawsuit.

District officials confirmed that they remotely activated webcams to locate more than 40 missing laptops without notifying students or parents. Lawyers have repeatedly requested all the photographs and screenshots the district obtained.

There is precedence in similar cases, though nothing exactly the same. In 2001, the United States Supreme Court ruled that police could not permeate a home with infrared lights to determine if there were heat lamps in place to grow marijuana. Technology is unable to cross the line of a person’s home, as it violates the individual’s privacy.

If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, feel free to call Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district issue.