Big Teacher Is Watching You?

According to the Complaint in Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (filed a week ago),

2. Unbeknownst to [high school students and their parents], and without their authorization, [high school officials] have been spying on the activities of [the students] by Defendants’ indiscrimina[te] use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District….

23…. Plaintiffs were for the first time informed of [this] capability and practice by the School District when … an Assistant Principal at Harriton High School[] informed minor Plaintiff that the School District was of the belief that minor Plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the School District….

24. [The minor Plaintiff’s father] thereafter verified, through [the Assistant Principal], that the School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a students’ personal laptop computer issued by the School District at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.

If this was indeed done, and if it was done without adequately notifying the students and their parents, this was clearly tortious, likely a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and possibly a statutory violation as well (though I haven’t looked closely at the statutory details). It is also appalling — school officials spying on children in their parents’ homes without the children’s and parents’ permission. Who thinks up such things?

I should note that such spying would indeed be legal (unless there are some statutory or local law twists I’m missing) if the cameras were planted using a warrant based on probable cause to believe that there was evidence of a crime in the home. But that seems quite unlikely under the circumstances, at least as alleged in the Complaint.

I’d love to hear more facts on this, as well as the school district’s side of the story.

Thanks to Prof. Joe Olson and Cory Doctorow (boingboing) for the pointer.

UPDATE: From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“This is the first we have heard of this lawsuit being filed and the plaintiff’s allegations,” [Doug Young, spokesman for the Lower Merion School District,] said today. “However, we can categorically state that we are — and have always been — committed to protecting the privacy of our students.” …

“We have referred this matter to our attorneys for appropriate legal action and plan to communicate with parents and students with more information as it becomes available.”

Thanks to commenter VR for the pointer.

FURTHER UPDATE: The district has this response (emphasis added), which seems to deny the allegations:

The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today….

Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. The security feature was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student….

Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.

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