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February 20th, 2010

School District Accused Of Spying On Students In Their Homes

The Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania is being sued for spying on its students via webcams installed in school-issued laptops. The class action lawsuit was initiated after an image taken with such a device was allegedly cited as evidence for disciplinary action against a high-school student.

The class action complaint was filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by the parents of Blake J. Robbins, a minor attending the Harriton High School in Rosemont. The Lower Merion School District, of which the high school is part, its board of directors and the administrator are named as defendants, while all affected students and their families constitute the Class.

“Unbeknownst to Plaintiffs and the members of the Class, and without their authorization, Defendants have been spying on the activities of Plaintiffs and Class members by Defendant’s indiscriminant [sic] use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District,” was alleged in the complaint.

The gross violation of privacy apparently came to light when Blake Robbins was confronted by Harriton High School Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko, about engaging in “improper behavior in his home.” Ms. Matsko cited a photograph taken with the webcam installed in the laptop given to the student by the school district.

In an open letter sent to parents on Thursday, Superintendent of Schools Christopher W. McGinley, the school district’s administrator, admits that webcams installed in school-issued laptops can be turned on remotely. However, he stresses that this feature that has now been disabled was used strictly for security purposes.

“Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature would be activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The security feature’s capabilities were limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever,” Mr. McGinley explained.

In an update posted yesterday, it is further revealed that the feature was used 50 times during this school year to track laptops. It is also acknowledged that parents were not notified about the existence of this capability. “While certain rules for laptop use were spelled out – such as prohibitive uses on and off school property – there was no explicit notification that the laptop contained the security software. This notice should have been given and we regret that was not done,” the superintendent wrote.

The school district also dismisses accusations made in the class action complaint suggesting that the Harriton High School Assistant Principal accessed the security feature. It is clearly stated that only two people from the school district’s technical department were able to remotely enable the webcams.

Credit: News

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