Webcams, School Laptops & Alleged Student Drug Trafficking…UNBELIEVABLE!
A federal class action lawsuit (Robbins v. Lower Merion School District) has been filed against a school district in suburban Philadelphia alleging that its school-supplied laptops were improperly used to observe students in their homes. As part of what the school district characterizes as an anti-theft program, Lower Merion School District remotely activated cameras (web cams) built into MacBooks the district had supplied to every high school student as part of its One-to-One initiative, a program intended to “provide students with 21st Century learning environments both at home and in school, and to give all students access to technology resources.” Nowhere in any of the information supplied to parents and students was any mention made of this remote web cam activation capability.
The lawsuit was filed after a student at Lower Merion High School was called in to the Vice Principal’s office on suspicion of drug trafficking. The basis for this suspicion turned out to be a picture taken in the student’s bedroom by the web cam on his school computer. Blake Robbins, a sophomore at Herriton High School, claims that he was actually only eating his favorite candy, “Mike & Ike”, not ingesting controlled dangerous substances when he was surreptitiously video tapped by the local school system.
The suit seeks damages for violations of the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Fourth Amendment, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act (PWESA) and Pennsylvania common law. The District Court has issued an order in this case compelling LMSD to disable the remote web cam activation feature in all of its laptops (LMSD issued a statement two (2) days after the suit was filed stating that this had already been done). The judge has also issued what is being characterized as a “gag order,” whereby the plaintiffs’ (Robbins’) lawyer must be allowed to vet (and possibly veto) any communication between the defendants (the school board, the school district, and the Superintendent) and the members of the defined class (i.e., all the high school students in the district and their parents). This sort of “gag order” is commonplace in class action suits, but is seldom seen in an educational setting.
More information about this case can be found here.