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Originally published February 18, 2010 at 8:58 PM | Page modified February 19, 2010 at 2:07 PM

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Suit: School used its laptops to spy on students at home

A suburban Philadelphia school district used webcams in school-issued laptops to spy on students at home, potentially catching them and their families in compromising situations, a family claims in a federal lawsuit.

The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — A suburban school district used webcams in school-issued laptops to spy on students at home, potentially catching them and their families in compromising situations, a family claims in a federal lawsuit.

Lower Merion School District officials said the laptops "contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops," and that the feature was deactivated Thursday. Angry students already had put tape on their laptop cameras and microphones.

Sophomore Tom Halpern described students as "pretty disgusted," and noted his class recently read "Nineteen Eighty-Four," the George Orwell classic that coined the term "Big Brother."

"This is just bogus," said Halpern, 15, of Wynnewood, as he left Harriton High School on Thursday with his taped-up computer. "I just think it's really despicable that they have the ability to just watch me all the time."

The school district can activate the webcams without students' knowledge or permission, the suit said. Plaintiffs Michael and Holly Robbins suspect the cameras captured students and family members as they undressed and in other embarrassing situations, according to the suit.

Such actions would amount to potentially illegal electronic wiretapping, said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is not involved in the case.

"School officials cannot, any more than police, enter into the home either electronically or physically without an invitation or a warrant," Walczak said.

A school-district statement released late Thursday said the tracking feature would not be reactivated "without express written notification to all students and families."

Virginia DiMedio, the Lower Merion district's technology director until she retired last summer, said that "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 feature had been used several times to trace stolen laptops, but there had been no discussion of using that capability to monitor students' behavior. "I can't imagine anyone in the district did anything other than track stolen computers," she said.

The affluent district, northwest of Philadelphia, prides itself on its technology initiatives, which include giving Apple laptops to each of the approximately 2,300 students at its two high schools.

"It is no accident that we arrived ahead of the curve; in Lower Merion, our responsibility is to lead," Superintendent Christopher McGinley wrote on the district Web site. McGinley did not return messages left Thursday.

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The Robbinses said they learned of the reported webcam images in November, when Lindy Matsko, an assistant principal at Harriton High School, told their son Blake that school officials thought he had engaged in improper behavior at home. The behavior was not specified in the suit.

"(Matsko) cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff's personal laptop issued by the school district," the suit states. The behavior was not specified in the suit, which did not make clear whether the family had seen any photographs captured by school officials.

Matsko later confirmed to Michael Robbins that the school had the ability to activate the webcams remotely, according to the suit, which was filed Tuesday and which seeks class-action status.

Named as defendants are the school district, the district's nine-member board of directors and McGinley.

The Robbinses seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and an end to the "spying."

The Robbinses declined to comment further Thursday. Their lawyer, Mark Haltzman, did not return messages.

The Supreme Court reaffirmed the privacy of the home when it ruled in 2001 that police could not, without a warrant, use thermal-imaging equipment outside a home to see if heat lamps were being used inside to grow marijuana. Technology or no, Supreme Court precedents draw "a firm line at the entrance to the house," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, quoting an earlier case.

"This isn't just them spying on the kids, this is them intruding on the parents' home. Who knows what they are seeing?" Walczak said. "The courts for 80 years have said there's no greater sanctuary than a person's own home."

The lawsuit's allegations raise new concerns about school-issued laptops, an Electronic Freedom Foundation lawyer said.

"I've never heard of anything this egregious," said Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney at the San Francisco-based group. "Nobody would have imagined that schools would peer into students' private homes and even bedrooms without any kind of justification."

Students such as Halpern say they mostly keep their computers in their bedrooms — and rarely turn them off.

"School ends at the end of the school property, so they shouldn't really be in our business at home," Halpern said.

Information from The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News is included in this report.

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