Teen says school spied on him at home via school-issued laptop

Harriton High School in Pennsylvania gave laptops to all students. But when it appeared to use the webcam to monitor student behavior, it ran into a buzz saw of criticism, including a class-action lawsuit.

Matt Rourke/AP
Harriton High School in Bryn Mawr, Pa. A family alleges in a federal lawsuit that the suburban Philadelphia school district used school-issued laptop webcams to spy on students at home, potentially catching them and their families in compromising situations.

A Pennsylvania high-schooler has accused school officials of spying on him at home by remotely activating his laptop webcam. The case has sparked a new flurry of attention to the legal and ethical issues swirling around technology and education.

Blake Robbins and his parents filed a class-action suit against the Lower Merion School District in Ardmore, Pa., alleging “indiscriminate remote activation of a webcam” and “intentional interception of ... private webcam images” by school officials.

The issue arose, the Feb. 11 lawsuit says, when Harriton High School assistant principal Lindy Matsko told Blake that he was suspected of engaging in improper behavior and that the evidence was an image from the webcam embedded in the school-issued laptop.

“If the facts are as they appear to be in the claims by the student, it’s shocking,” says John Palfrey, a law professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

High school gave laptops to all students

The district was one of the first in the United States to provide laptops to all high school students to enrich their education, Superintendent Christopher McGinley notes in a letter on the district’s website.

The letter attempts to reassure families that protecting student privacy is paramount. It explains that a feature allowing a still image to be taken via webcam remotely was intended to track lost or stolen laptops, and that it was deactivated yesterday. A review is also under way of the security feature’s use and of “any other technology areas in which the intersection of privacy and security may come into play,” the letter notes.

As news about the lawsuit surfaced, some students began putting tape over their laptop cameras and microphones, the Associated Press reports.

“If [the district’s] version of the story is true, it still reveals a bad judgment call ... to [have had] such a technology feature in place,” says Mr. Palfrey. “The bigger picture is that schools have no idea by and large what to do with technology ... [and an incident like the one alleged] does a huge disservice to efforts to modernize the way we are educating our kids for a 21st-century workforce [by integrating] appropriate use of technology.”

Schools struggle with new technologies

Schools have long struggled with how to regulate student behavior when it comes to new technologies, with controversies arising over everything from “sexting” on cellphones to posting rude or threatening comments on social networking sites like Facebook.

Broadly speaking, “it’s a controversial area – to what degree should schools be able to regulate student behavior that isn’t directly connected to what goes on at school?” says Len Rieser, co-director of the Education Law Center in Philadelphia. “Where the courts and the law [in Pennsylvania] have tended to come down is that behavior that happens outside of school and doesn’t impact the school is not within the school’s proper area of authority.”

This is a rare case where the administrators’ rather than the students’ use of school technology is at issue, raising the question of whether school officials are trained adequately in how to set and execute appropriate technology policies.

“Now that we’ve discovered that this [remote operation of webcams] is possible, it provides a good opportunity for people to say, ‘This is absolutely unacceptable,’ and to put in place safeguards against it,” Mr. Rieser says.


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