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Student claims school spied on him via computer webcam

A Lower Merion family has set off a furor among students, parents, and civil liberties groups by alleging that Harriton High School officials used a webcam on a school-issued laptop to spy on their 15-year-old son at home.

The school district says the webcam surveillance is for security. (Daily news photo illustration)
The school district says the webcam surveillance is for security. (Daily news photo illustration)Read more

A Lower Merion family has set off a furor among students, parents, and civil liberties groups by alleging that Harriton High School officials used a webcam on a school-issued laptop to spy on their 15-year-old son at home.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court, the family said the school's assistant principal had confronted their son, told him he had "engaged in improper behavior in [his] home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in [his] personal laptop issued by the school district."

The suit contends the Lower Merion School District, one of the most prosperous and highest-achieving in the state, had the ability to turn on students' webcams and illegally invade their privacy.

While declining to comment on the specifics of the suit, spokesman Douglas Young said the district was investigating. "We're taking it very seriously," he said last night.

The district's Apple MacBook laptops have a built-in webcam with a "security feature" that can snap a picture of the operator and the screen if the computer is reported lost or stolen, Young said.

But he said "the district would never utilize that security feature for any other reason." The district said that the security system was "deactivated" yesterday, and that it would review when the system had been used.

Widener University law professor Stephen Henderson said using a laptop camera for home surveillance would violate wiretap laws, even if done to catch a thief.

A statement on the district Web site said the lawsuit's allegations "are counter to everything that we stand for as a school and a community."

The suit says that in November, assistant principal Lynn Matsko called in sophomore Blake Robbins and told him that he had "engaged in improper behavior in his home," and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam in his school-issued laptop.

Matsko later told Robbins' father, Michael, that the district "could remotely activate the webcam contained in a student's personal laptop . . . at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam" without the knowledge or approval of the laptop's users, the suit says.

It does not say what improper activity Robbins was accused of or what, if any, discipline resulted. Reached at home yesterday, his mother, Holly, said she could not comment on advice of the family's lawyers.

Blake Robbins, answering the door at his home, said he, too, could not comment. With a mop of brown hair and clad in a black T-shirt and jeans, he smiled when told the suit had earned him a Wikipedia page and other Internet notoriety.

Mark Haltzman, a lawyer with the Trevose firm of Lamm Rubenstone, which represents the Robbins family, did not return calls seeking comment. Matsko's husband said the assistant principal could not comment.

Fueled with state grants, the Lower Merion district issued laptops to all 2,300 high school students, starting last school year at Harriton and later at Lower Merion High, to promote more "engaged and active learning and enhanced student achievement," Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley said in a statement.

McGinley and Lower Merion School Board President David Ebby did not respond to requests for comment.

Families in the 6,900-student district reacted with shock. Parent Candace Chacona said she was "flabbergasted" by the allegations.

"My first thought was that my daughter has her computer open almost around the clock in her bedroom. Has she been spied on?"

Victoria Zuzelo, a senior at Harriton, said she and other students had been told about the security feature, and knew the district had the right to search computer hard drives at school.

Some students had taken to covering webcams in school with paper because they thought they might be watched, she said. "But . . . they would never think the school would be watching them at home. I'm not sure who to believe, but I'm hoping it is not true because if it was, it would really be outrageous."

Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy watchdog group in Washington, said she had not heard of any other case in which school officials were accused of monitoring student behavior at home via a computer. If the allegations are true, she said, "this is an outrageous invasion of individual privacy."

Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told the Associated Press: "School officials cannot, any more than police, enter into the home either electronically or physically without an invitation or a warrant."

Virginia DiMedio, who as the Lower Merion district's technology director until she retired last summer helped launch the laptop initiative, said yesterday: "If there was a report that a computer was stolen, the next time a person opened it up, it would take their picture and give us their IP [Internet protocol] address - the location of where it was coming from."

She said that the feature had been used several times to trace stolen laptops, but that there had been no discussion of using it to monitor students' behavior. "I can't imagine anyone in the district did anything other than track stolen computers," she said.

DiMedio said the district did not widely publicize the feature "for obvious reasons. It involved computer security, and that is all it was being used for."

She added: "People ask you all the time, 'Can you do this? Can you do this?' . . . But you have to be conscious of students' rights. I would not have walked into that swamp. . . . You want kids to use the technology. You want them to feel safe, to feel trusted."

The laptop initiative, she said, is "a wonderful program. There were kids in some of the poorer areas that had none of the resources that the other students had. That was what the initiative was for - to give kids a chance."

In a published policy statement, the district warns that laptop users "should not expect that files stored on district resources will be private," and says the network administrator "may review files and communication to . . . ensure that students are using the system responsibly."