Students in a Philadelphia-area school district have launched a lawsuit accusing their schools of spying on them at home through webcams installed in laptop computers the district gave them.
The parents of Blake Robbins, a student at Harriton High School in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, have launched a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 1,800 high school students who were issued laptops by the Lower Merion School District.
Robbins’ lawsuit (PDF) alleges that students and parents weren’t told that school administrators had the ability to activate the laptop webcams remotely, even when the student is at home or away from the computer.
The lawsuit seeks “damages for invasion of privacy, theft of private information, and unlawful interception and access to electronic information,” reports Courthouse News.
Robbins’ family only found out that school officials were allegedly spying on students when an assistant principal confronted Robbins about “improper behaviour in his home,” and showed him a picture taken from Robbins’ school-issued laptop, reports the Toronto Star.
“The school district has the ability to and has captured images of [students] without their permission or authorization, all of which is embarrassing and humiliating,” the lawsuit states.
“As the laptops were routinely used at home, it is believed … that many of the images captured may consist of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including various stages of undress.”
“If true, these allegations are about as creepy as they come,” writes technology blogger Cory Doctorow. “I often have the laptop in the room while I’m getting dressed, having private discussions with my family, and so on. The idea that a school district would not only spy on its students’ clickstreams and emails (bad enough), but also use these machines as AV bugs is purely horrifying.”
Doctorow adds: “Schools are in an absolute panic about kids divulging too much online, worried about pedos and marketers and embarrassing photos that will haunt you when you run for office or apply for a job in 10 years. They tell kids to treat their personal details as though they were precious.
“But when schools take that personal information … they send a much more powerful message: your privacy is worthless and you shouldn’t try to protect it.”
According to the Toronto Star, the Lower Merion School District is among the wealthiest in Pennsylvania, and one of only two districts in the state to earn “Moody’s highest bond rating,” perhaps explaining how it can afford a laptop for every student.
The district’s teachers “are among the highest paid in Pennsylvania and its students’ college-entrance scores are among the highest in the country,” the Star reports.