Lawsuit: School Cyberspied on Student (Update)

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

A school district in suburban Philadelphia gave out MacBook laptops to “all high school students” which contained a security feature allowing the school to remotely activate the laptops’ webcams, Lower Merion School District Superintendent Dr. Christopher McGinley admitted yesterday. “The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today,” states the district’s initial online response.

A letter by Dr. McGinley posted later that evening gives more details:

“…Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. District laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. The security feature, which was disabled today, 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 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…”

This revelation came following a lawsuit by one family against the school district, Computer World reported yesterday. “A Philadelphia-area school district finds itself under scrutiny after remotely activating a MacBook Web cam and capturing a young student engaging in ‘improper behavior at home,’” writes Brennon Slattery for PC World today. “The student was confronted by a Harrington High School official and shown photographs of his actions. These photographs set off privacy alarms and have led to a class-action lawsuit alleging that the school district has been spying on its students in their homes.” (Actually, the initial Computer World article said the lawsuit might become a class-action suit, but is not necessarily one yet. He also misspelled the school district’s name as “Lower Merton School District.”)

“[Michael and Holly] Robbins claimed that the district did not tell them beforehand that their son’s laptop Webcam could be activated remotely, and added that there was no mention of the functionality in any of the documentation they received or on the district’s Web site,” reported Gregg Keizer for Computer World on Feb. 18. “The suit accuses the school district of violating the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and other federal and state statues, including the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act,” he later added.

Update, 2/23: Laura Ingle at the Fox News LiveShots blog says that the FBI is now involved. “Now, the FBI has reportedly opened an investigation into the case to see if there were any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws that were violated,” she writes.

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.