Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Rare ban in laptop lawsuit

Lower Merion district can't discuss its cameras or other issues without alerting the plaintiff.

The next time Lower Merion school administrators want to talk to students and parents about their laptop-camera controversy, they will have to get a lawyer's blessing.

Not from their own lawyers, but the ones suing them on behalf of a Harriton High sophomore who claims the school invaded his home and his privacy by remotely snapping his image with the camera on his school-provided laptop.

The unusual order, signed by a federal judge yesterday, means those running the elite Lower Merion School District can't say a word about the laptop cameras or any other issues in the suit without giving the other side a copy of what they want to say - plus six hours' notice.

Such communication limits are commonplace in class-action litigation, but rare in the context of a school district at the center of what's become a nationwide controversy.

For example, it raises questions about what Lower Merion Superintendent Christopher McGinley can say tonight during a scheduled talk with district residents at Narberth Borough Hall, his first such town meeting since the laptop uproar began.

"You have the peculiar tension here of the district's obligation to taxpayers," said Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., the former federal prosecutor hired by the district to get to the bottom of what students have dubbed "webcamgate."

Attorney Mark S. Haltzman said he wanted to make sure the district didn't spread falsehoods about his client, 15-year-old Blake Robbins.

"We want a fair opportunity to talk to our clients," he said - meaning other students and parents who might have been affected by the laptop-security program.

The court order also says the district must preserve all computer files - particularly captured images - and cannot change the software on the laptops without permission.

The agreement on the order, negotiated over several hours yesterday by lawyers for the district and the Robbins family, also bars the district from remotely activating the laptops to record images or screen shots as part of the security system that officials said they disabled last week.

Federal prosecutors last week issued a subpoena for the district's records related to that system. Yesterday, in another sign of the intensity of the furor, the U.S. attorney and the FBI issued a rare statement confirming their inquiry into whether the snooping system broke any laws.

Usually, the Justice Department stays mum about criminal investigations, but it makes exceptions for cases that garner high publicity.

"The issues raised by these allegations are wide-ranging and involve the meeting of the new world of cyberspace with that of physical space," said Michael L. Levy, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

"Our focus will only be on whether anyone committed any crimes," he said. "At this point, very few facts are known." The statement said the FBI would work with Montgomery County and Lower Merion authorities.

All 2,300 students at Lower Merion's two high schools are issued Apple MacBook laptops, complete with webcams.

Starting in 2008, the district used a remote control program to snap pictures - but only, officials said, when a laptop was reported lost, missing, or stolen. This feature was activated 42 times this school year, officials said.

In November, a Harriton assistant principal called Blake Robbins in, showed him an image captured from his laptop, and said the picture appeared to show him with drugs, according to Haltzman, the attorney.

He said Robbins was actually holding pieces of Mike & Ike, the teen's favorite candy.

Also yesterday, new clues surfaced in the lingering mystery of why the district remotely activated the camera in Robbins' laptop.

The district contends that the Robbinses failed to pay a required $55 insurance fee, and that, therefore, Blake was barred from taking home a laptop. The school has a pool of "loaners" for students who have not paid the fee or are waiting for a new laptop.

The fee question was mentioned by U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois in court yesterday, as he tried to craft a compromise between dueling versions on the order, submitted by the two sides' attorneys.

Haltzman said after the hearing that he knew of no problem with fees or permissions. The lawyer said that Robbins' school laptop had broken and that he took a replacement home "every single day" for a month - with no one at school objecting or reporting it missing.

"Now we hear about all these issues," Haltzman said. "He didn't do anything wrong."

The order says Robbins will turn over the laptop to a technician who will make a mirror image of its hard drive. The teen is to get a replacement laptop - as soon as school officials receive any unpaid insurance fees.

Who's looking at you, kid?

Should people with camera-equipped laptops or computers be worried about snooping?

Someone with sophisticated skills can install such a camera-activation program from afar, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. Still, there have been few reports of webcam hacking; most appear to involve the targeting of specific users rather than a widespread threat.

"I'm surprised it hasn't happened a lot more," said Chris King, director of product marketing for Palo Alto Networks of Sunnyvale, Calif. "The software technology to grab hold of a webcam and send that feed somewhere has been around for a while."

As always, computer users should be extremely careful about opening attachments and clicking on links from unfamiliar sources, King said. In some cases, a spy program could be installed only after the user gets the option to click "yes" in response to some innocuous question.

More troubling would be a stealth program that exploits some vulnerability in the computer - a problem that should be preventable with a decent firewall system, King said.

As for a widespread collection of raw video from millions of computers, King said, people should be more worried about yielding their credit card information.

"That's a far more attractive target than you making dinner at home," he said.

Still not feeling secure?

On various Web sites, several wags have suggested a low-tech solution to block snooping by webcam:

Cover the thing with a piece of tape.

- Tom Avril