Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

L. Merion webcam issue is new legal territory

Even today, relatively few students can imagine their schools giving them a computer to take home. Fewer still can envision their schools using those devices to spy on them.

The school district says the webcam surveillance is for security, to which a PC expert responded, "Bulls---." (Daily news photo illustration)
The school district says the webcam surveillance is for security, to which a PC expert responded, "Bulls---." (Daily news photo illustration)Read more

Even today, relatively few students can imagine their schools giving them a computer to take home.

Fewer still can envision their schools using those devices to spy on them.

Yet that was the charge leveled in an explosive federal lawsuit filed last week against the Lower Merion School District in its use of remote-control cameras on those laptop computers.

Now federal prosecutors have subpoenaed the district, The Inquirer has learned. The grand-jury subpoena, delivered Friday, sought records related to the cameras and the system that district officials used to activate them, said a person who had been briefed about the matter. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.

School district spokesman Douglas Young, while declining to say if a subpoena was received, said yesterday that the district would cooperate with any investigation.

U.S. Attorney Michael Levy, who previously headed the office's computer crimes unit, declined to comment. But one federal official offered a rough outline of what investigators might be looking for.

"Among the allegations we would look at are whether any wiretap or computer intrusion laws were broken," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We're just getting started. And at the end of the day, we may not find any federal violations."

The wiretap law applies to audio, not video or still images. The intrusion law bars unauthorized access to a computer with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or invade privacy.

The case has riveted not only students and parents, but also privacy experts who called it unprecedented - and perhaps a harbinger of the future as the reach of technology expands beyond school walls.

"This is the first one where we've seen this scenario," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "This is definitely a new one."

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, accuses district officials of using a webcam on the school-issued laptop of a Harriton High School sophomore to spy on the boy in his home, and to snoop on other students at home.

Blake Robbins, 15, was confronted Nov. 11 by an assistant principal who used a photo from the webcam to accuse the teen of engaging in "improper behavior" at home, says the lawsuit, brought by Robbins' parents.

On Friday, the youth told TV crews that the photo showed him eating his favorite candy at home."They were trying to allege that when Blake was holding two Mike & Ikes in his hand . . . that somehow he was involved in selling drugs," the family's lawyer, Mark S. Haltzman, told TV reporters.

The school district said Harriton's assistant principal had merely tried "to be supportive of a student and his family," and that the school would never have used such a photo as a basis for discipline.

The suit says the family was informed of the webcam's ability to monitor its users only after the assistant principal talked to the boy.

The Montgomery County school district said the cameras were activated only on laptops that had been reported missing, lost or stolen. This school year, technicians activated the system 42 times and retrieved 18 missing or stolen laptops - before last week's controversy caused officials to disable the system till further notice.

Young said Friday that parents and students should have been told clearly of the system in advance. "That notice should have been given, and we regret not giving it."

Meanwhile, some Web sites swelled with demands to prosecute school officials for wiretapping as others expressed frustration that more details of the case had not emerged. The word if figured prominently in the reactions of some parents last week.

"If this is true, I am outraged," said Mare Rosenbaum, whose son attends Harriton.

The lawsuit did not say if Blake Robbins' laptop had been reported missing or stolen, and gave no specific evidence that any other students had been monitored at home.

Christopher Wolf, a Washington lawyer who specializes in privacy issues, said answers to such questions - and the extent to which the district informed parents and students of the webcams' use - are critical in determining if school officials erred.

"If, in fact, notice was given, and if the computer was reported lost or stolen, and if, consistent with the notice, the monitoring system was turned on," Wolf said, "it would be hard to see how that would violate the expectation of privacy."

Even so, Wolf said, there was no justification to use Robbins' photo to discipline him at school for anything he had done at home.

"They would use the [webcam] to locate the stolen computer, not as an opportunity to then monitor student behavior," Wolf said. "The issue is, where is the computer, not what is the student doing?"

Coney, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, took a harder line. Schools should not be installing monitoring equipment on student-issued laptops, period, she said.

"If it's lost, believe me, they are going to hold the parents responsible for replacing it. If it's stolen, they have insurance to replace it," Coney said. "They're not law enforcement. They are not in the business of conducting surveillance or investigative efforts beyond anything that happens within that school."

Coney said she wondered whether computer vendors had promoted the use of monitoring systems to school officials. But once the monitors are in place, she said, they are ripe for abuse.

"It could just as well have been a predator of some type, a criminal who has the same ability to manipulate the technology," she said. "The risks are there, and you can't protect for every type of exploitation that might occur."

The lawsuit contends that the school district violated state and federal privacy laws. But Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said Friday that neither the Robbins family nor their lawyer had contacted her office or local police.

Ferman, who said she learned of the matter from news reports, said she had begun a preliminary investigation.

The federal wiretap law applies only to audio, not video images. But the Department of Justice considers a video wiretap such an invasion of privacy that federal prosecutors typically seek a judge's permission before installing hidden video cameras in a home or an office.

The halls of Lower Merion and Harriton High Schools were still buzzing Friday with talk of the story that some students have dubbed "webcamgate."

"It is a bit surreal for my school to be at the center of such a media frenzy," Hannah Goldberg-Morse, an editor at Lower Merion's student newspaper, said in an e-mail.

While exciting, she said, "it's also sad to see my school portrayed in such a negative light, especially over something that has very little to do with the overall quality of our school and educations."

Jeffrey Lindy, a defense lawyer whose son is a Lower Merion senior, said he doubts a federal crime occurred.

"I think the federal case is going to go away pretty quick; it would be a defense attorney's dream because there is certainly no intent to commit a crime here," Lindy said yesterday. "Now, of course, the parents weren't told. That's not illegal, just stupid."