LOWER MERION School District officials brag that they give every one of their 2,300 high-schoolers laptop computers to "ensure that all students have 24/7 access to school-based resources."
Instead, the school district ensured that they got a 24/7 sneak peek into students' private lives by secretly monitoring webcams embedded in the laptops to spy on teens and their families at home, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed this week in Philadelphia.
The suit alleges that the remotely controlled covert cameras violate the Fourth Amendment and laws governing wiretapping, electronic communications and computer fraud.
It was filed Tuesday on behalf of Harriton High student Blake J. Robbins and all Lower Merion students by Robbins' parents, Michael and Holly Robbins, of Penn Valley.
Named as defendants are the district, the district's nine-member board of directors and Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley.
The Robbinses seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as well as an end to the "spying," according to the 17-page complaint.
The family learned of the monitoring on Nov. 11, when Harriton Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko reprimanded Blake Robbins for "improper behavior in his home," according to the lawsuit. Matsko cited as evidence a photograph that was taken with the webcam on the boy's school-issued laptop.
The lawsuit does not specify why the school considered the photograph objectionable.
Because the webcam can capture anything happening in the room where the laptop is, district personnel could illicitly observe plenty more than a student's online activity, the lawsuit alleges.
"Many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various stages of dress or undress," the lawsuit charges.
District officials never informed students or their families that the district had the capability to monitor the webcams, according to the lawsuit.
At their home last night, the Robbinses declined to comment. Their attorney, Mark S. Haltzman, did not return telephone calls.
Blake Robbins, in a terse e-mail to this reporter on Facebook, wrote: "All interviews will be next week."
McGinley released a statement last night acknowledging that the district has occasionally monitored webcams - but only as a "security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops."
"Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property," McGinley said. "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."
When a laptop is reported missing, the district's security and technology staffers activate the security tracking feature, which works by taking a still image - via webcam - of the operator and the operator's screen, according to McGinley's statement.
"This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop," he wrote. "The District has not used the tracking feature or webcam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."
The Apple laptops came equipped with the webcams, and many students use them for educational purposes, such as conferencing to discuss schoolwork or making videos at school, district spokesman Doug Young added.
After learning of the Robbinses' lawsuit yesterday, district officials deactivated the security feature and vowed not to reactivate it without "express written notification to all students and families."
District officials also said they would review each instance in which monitors activated the security software to make sure privacy wasn't compromised.
One computer expert said that the district does have the right to ensure that students are using laptops appropriately, especially since the computers belong to the district.
But they don't need webcams to do so, said Dan Tynan, a contributing editor of PC World magazine and author of the 2005 book "Computer Privacy Annoyances."
Rather, they could install filtering software that restricts a student's online activity, require students to log-in through the school system or even inspect the laptops periodically to see what students have done on them, Tynan said.
"This is extremely creepy and way beyond the purview of the school," he said. "Schools tend to have more control over what students can do [online] than other organizations, because students are minors and these are laptops issued by the school. It is very common for schools to monitor Web access and to monitor or prevent things like Web chats; they have good reasons to do that."
But locating lost, stolen or missing laptops does not require a webcam, Tynan said. Instead, computer owners concerned about loss or theft typically install tracking software that works by "phoning home." When a thief goes online on his looted laptop, the owner's server receives unique information, such as an Internet Protocol (IP) address, that reveals the unit's location, Tynan said.
"There's really no need to try to take a picture of someone-in fact, how can you prove the person in front of the laptop was the one who stole it?" Tynan said. .
"I'm dubious about the legality - or at least, the usefulness in court. And to install this stuff on anyone's computer and not notify them about it is just begging for a world of pain."