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FBI launches probe into schools accused of spying on kids through webcams

By Daniel Tencer
Monday, February 22, 2010 12:57 EDT
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Vice-principal used cameras to confront student about drug use: claim

The FBI has launched an investigation into a Pennsylvania school district that has been accused of spying on students through webcams on laptops it issued to those students.

Lawyers for Harriton High School student Blake Robbins plan to ask a judge Monday to order the retention of all data on 2,300 laptops issued to students by the Lower Merion School District, near Philadelphia, the Associated Press reports.

The Robbins family launched the lawsuit after an assistant principal confronted Robbins with evidence of “improper behavior in his home,” and showed him a picture from inside the home, taken by the webcam.

Robbins’ lawyers say they need the data on the laptops to argue their case, but the data may also prove useful to an FBI investigation. CNN reports that the FBI is looking into the possibility the Lower Merion School District violated federal laws on wiretapping and computer intrusion by remotely activating webcams on student computers while the the computers were at home.

The Montogmery County district attorney has said she is looking into the matter as well.

When news of the lawsuit broke last week, the school district issued a statement arguing it only used the ability to remotely turn on the webcam to find lost or stolen laptops, and not to discipline students over behavior in their home.

But that assertion contradicts what the Robbins family is saying. According to the Associated Press, the Robbins family says vice principal Lindy Matsko confronted Robbins about what he thought was the student’s possible drug use. They say Matsko saw a candy through the webcam and mistook it for a pill.

In another statement, the school board said it had activated the remote cameras 42 times during the 2009-2010 school year to search for missing laptops. It says it recovered 18 laptops this way. The school district has since said that it has stopped using the remote webcam feature.

“I think what they’re doing was absolutely terrible and scary,” Blake told ABC’s Good Morning America Monday. “They are invading my house. They might as well be sitting in my room watching me without my knowing.”

Internet privacy lawyer Parry Aftab told ABC that the school district may have crossed the line from education to policing.

“Schools have very limited authority under the Constitution to deal with things that are off-premises after hours and have nothing to do with the school itself, so in this case I think the school was out of bounds, literally,” she said. “Schools are schools, police are police, and they never should meet.”

Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young told CNN that all students who were issued a school laptop had to sign an agreement that allowed the school to use remote activation if the laptop was lost or stolen. But he admitted it was a “mistake” not to overtly tell parents and students that the school district had this ability.

 
 
 
 
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