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Lawsuit: Lower Merion spied on student through district-provided webcam

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

The Lower Merion School District spied on a student in his home, using the webcam in his school-supplied laptop, a federal lawsuit alleges.

The parents of Blake Robbins, a Harriton High student from Penn Valley, claimed the school never warned parents that the webcam in the Macintosh computer could be turned on remotely by school administrators. The laptops were issued to all Harriton students.

Two Harriton students reached today said they were shocked to learn of the allegations. Both said they leave the laptop on in their room most of the time. They said it would have been running when they were changing clothes or returning from the shower. They said they intended to cover the camera’s lens from now on.

The suit says the parents only found out about the remotely activated webcam when an assistant principal told them last November about something their son had allegedly done inside their home, and then produced a photo taken by the computer built-in camera.

This photo, taken by a student at Lower Merion High School, shows students using district-issued laptops in the gym.

This photo, taken by a student at Lower Merion High School, shows students using district-issued laptops in the gym.

In a statement, the district said the web cams are used only as a security feature, when a laptop is believed lost or stolen. On Thursday night, Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley posted a letter on its Web site explaining its use of the web cams. Following is an excerpt:

Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The security feature’s capabilities were limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.

As a result of our preliminary review of security procedures today, I directed the following actions:
Immediate disabling of the security-tracking program.

A thorough review of the existing policies for student laptop use.

A review of security procedures to help safeguard the protection of privacy; including a review of the instances in which the security software was activated. We want to ensure that any affected students and families are made aware of the outcome of laptop recovery investigations.

A review of any other technology areas in which the intersection of privacy and security may come into play.

Apple began routinely putting webcams in its laptops in 2006. Every Macbook now has an integrated webcam. Webcams are stock equipment on most PC laptops as well.

Read the lawsuit.



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