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School Spying on Students? Case Dismissed!

School Spying on Students? Case Dismissed!


On Tuesday, August 17, the FBI and federal prosecutors announced that they could not prove any criminal wrongdoing by Lower Merion School District.

“We have not found evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent,” declared U.S. Attorney Zane D. Memeger.

While Blake Robbins alleged the district photographed him 400 times in a 15-day period last fall, sometimes as he slept or was half-dressed, district officials said their technology staff only activated the remote tracking system to locate laptops that had been reported lost or stolen. This program took images every 15 minutes, usually capturing the webcam photo of the user and a screen shot at the same time.

However, even though Robbins maintains that he never reported his laptop missing or stolen, no criminal charges will be filed in this case.

There is one new policy in place as a result of this case: on Monday the school board voted to prohibit the remote use of the tracking software without the written consent of students and their parents or guardians.

On November 11 last year, Blake Robbins, a 15-year-old student at Harriton High School, in a suburb of Philadelphia, was hauled into the assistant principal Lindy Matsko’s office, shown a photograph taken on the laptop in his home and disciplined for “improper behavior.”

Some background: Last fall, Lower Merion School District provided 2,300 high school students with Mac laptops in what its superintendent, Christopher McGinley, described as an effort to establish a “mobile 21st-century learning environment.” The scheme was funded with $720,000 in state grants and other sources. The students were not allowed to install video games and other software, and were barred from “commercial, illegal, unethical and inappropriate” use. What Blake and his parents did not know is that the school was able to access the webcam on Blake’s laptop remotely at any time.

Now Blake’s parents are suing their son’s school, the school district, its board of directors and the superintendent. Michael and Holly Robbins are alleging that the district unlawfully used its ability to access a webcam remotely on their son’s district-issued laptop computer to spy on him while he was at home and unaware that he was being observed. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania, also includes a class action on behalf of every high school student in the district.

And in a dramatic move late yesterday, federal prosecutors and the FBI said they would join the probe into whether the Lower Merion School District did indeed spy on its students using remotely-controlled laptops. The suit claims a violation of the privacy and civil rights of the students and their families and accuses officials of violating electronic communications laws by spying on them through “indiscriminate use of an ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop.” According to the district, the webcams were installed to prevent theft of the laptops which are issued to every student. The district’s technology department activated tracking software in the webcams on 42 laptops reported lost or stolen during the current school year, the district said.

The case raises many questions: Why were parents and students not explictly told about the built-in security feature that could take over the laptop and see whatever was in the webcam’s field of vision? Why did the “acceptable-use” agreement that families were required to sign in order to allow the student to take the laptop home not explicity state the security feature that enabled the school to spy on its students? Doug Young, a spokesman for the Lower Merion School District, termed that “a mistake.”

And a much bigger question: Why would any adminstrator want to spy on a 15-year-old student? In answer to this question, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs, saying that it believes the case is unique and raises questions of whether the school district violated the boy’s rights to privacy and against unreasonable seizure.

Stay tuned for further developments!

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Judy Molland

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12:36PM PDT on Sep 4, 2010

Parents, at the least, should have been notified that the school could remotely activate the webcam. I can understand the judge's dismissing the case. After all, kids don't have the right to privacy. 400 pictures, one every 15 minutes means they were observing this kid for nearly a week. What's worse is that screen shots were also taken which means that these pictures are in a permanent record somewhere, even if the school deleted them. I may be wrong but it is my understanding that a webcam tells you nothing about what is being done on the computer, only giving a picture of the user. As far as I can tell, the school was totally in the wrong.

11:56PM PDT on Aug 31, 2010

Okay, look. It's a SCHOOL computer paid for by funds the school acquired for EDUCATIONAL purposes, correct?

So why are students bringing it home for personal use? My son goes through a virtual school system, and his technology is paid for by tax payers for his education. That means they have the right to track how their equipment is being used.

Though what should have taken place is that when the call came through, the family should have been asked if the computer was indeed lost or stolen before using the webcam recorder. The school has a right to keep track of it's property, though in this circumstance, it's not really a clear case of what happened.

My son has his own PC to surf the net, go to youtube, etc.

2:54PM PDT on Aug 29, 2010


Adults forget they were once just like us... That's why none of us get along very well. They just don't understand us, and we don't understand them for not understanding us.

I think adults just WANT to have an excuse to punish kids who they THINK are doing bad things but actually is doing no harm at all. God...

Humans. So delusional.

4:37AM PDT on Aug 27, 2010

as usual 'authorities' protect paedophiles in positions of authority spying on minors for sexual gratification... situation normal in nazi america where war criminals guilty of mass murder and torture are ulso indemnified from prosecution and where, based on the overwhelming forensic evidence the govt is concealing the real perpeTraitors of 911 who were US and Israeli citizens and are still laughing all the way to the wall street banks.... too big to touch? No one should be above the law.

7:29PM PDT on Aug 23, 2010

A couple of things---what right did the school have to discipline him for "improper behaviour" in his own bedroom? What exactly was this "improper behaviour" anyway (although I bet I can guess, and again---what right?!), what judge would dismiss a case like this when there was obviously a violation of privacy?!?! He never reported the laptop stolen, therefore they WERE illegally photographing him by default!!! I just CAN"T believe this. Well, once again we're shown that we can't trust anyone---even those who should be about our wellbeing! Beware of Greeks baring gifts, you say? Screw that---beware of public schools baring "gifts" and send them back immediately!!!!!

9:32AM PDT on Aug 22, 2010

I thought that schools were in loco parentis for the time that students were at school but had no jurisdiction over the rest of their time.

1:58AM PDT on Aug 22, 2010

Big Brother is watching you. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. Through the flimsy excuse of "security" the U.S.A. has become a police state beside which even Nazi Germany was a bunch of bungling amateurs

6:21PM PDT on Aug 21, 2010

You said it all James C. Now that we know what kind of country is becoming, I guess this means that we as a nation can and will stop condemning other countries on how they mistreat their citizens and start looking at ourselves as to how we treat our own?

11:51AM PDT on Aug 21, 2010

If the students want privacy, so long as they were warned about the spying in the first place, they should buy their own computers. If they were not actually warned, on paper with signature acknowledgements from the parents, the school has violated the wire tapping laws.

5:12AM PDT on Aug 21, 2010

thanks for post

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