Spying on L. Merion students sparks probes by FBI, Montco detectives
A federal invasion-of-privacy lawsuit may be the least of the Lower Merion School District's problems. Allegations that the affluent suburban district used webcams on school-issued laptops to "spy" on students in their homes has now caught the attention of Montgomery County detectives and the FBI, both of which are looking into whether the practice violated wiretap and privacy laws.
A federal invasion-of-privacy lawsuit may be the least of the Lower Merion School District's problems.
Allegations that the affluent suburban district used webcams on school-issued laptops to "spy" on students in their homes has now caught the attention of Montgomery County detectives and the FBI, both of which are looking into whether the practice violated wiretap and privacy laws.
The district is also fighting off a coast-to-coast onslaught of negative publicity that appeared to be growing more intense yesterday.
Some creeped-out students have placed tape over the cameras, and parody T-shirts are already being sold on the Internet – including one that features the ominous red camera eye of HAL 9000 from the sci-fi film "2001: A Space Odyssey" inside the district's circular logo.
"Upon arriving in the office this morning, we were inundated with calls from members of the community asking about this," Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said yesterday. "It became clear to me that we needed to look at this further to see if a criminal investigation is warranted."
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday on behalf of Harriton High School student Blake Robbins, claims that an assistant principal reprimanded the 15-year-old for "improper behavior in his home" that was captured by the embedded camera on Robbins' school-issued Apple MacBook.
Robbins told reporters outside his house last night that the improper behavior he was cited for was eating Mike & Ike candies, which he said the school mistook for illegal pills.
District spokesman Doug Young acknowledged yesterday that officials had remotely activated computer webcams 42 times, but only in an attempt to recover missing or stolen laptops, and never to spy on students. He said families had not been notified about the possibility that the cameras on the 2,300 laptops could be activated in their homes without their permission.
Yesterday, the Robbinses attorney, Mark Haltzman, filed an emergency motion in federal court demanding that the district halt the use of "peeping-tom technology," preserve all electronic files related to the webcams, and not attempt to confiscate the laptops.
"They think they're like the police," Haltzman said last night. "Lower Merion is not the police, they're not there to enforce anything other than what goes on in school, not what happens in people's homes. That's what parents are for."
Haltzman also questioned why officials would place the incident on Robbins' school record if the webcams were activated only to recover missing laptops.
"It's getting pretty intense," said Tom Halpern, 15, a Harriton High sophomore from Wynnewood whose "LMSD Is Watching You" Facebook page was already nearing 800 members by last night.
"The first time I heard it, I just couldn't believe it," he said. "It's just so beyond anything I would have imagined happening so close to home."
Lower Merion School District Superintendent Christopher McGinley said in a letter to parents that the "security feature," which enabled the webcams to take still photos if they were reported stolen, has been disabled in the wake of the lawsuit and subsequent uproar from parents and students.
"Privacy is a basic right in our society and a matter we take very seriously," McGinley wrote. "We believe that a good job can always be done better."
David Kairys, a Temple University law professor who specializes in civil rights and constitutional law, described the policy as Orwellian. He said it appears to be a "very clear civil-rights violation."
"It's pretty outrageous," Kairys said. "It's sort of beyond belief that they wouldn't say, 'This is going too far.' "
The Associated Press contributed to this report.