Spying scandal: Suburban Philadelphia school district took thousands of webcam images of students

According to court filings, the Lower Merion School District used district-issued Macbooks to spy on its students, taking thousands of webcam images of students without their knowledge. -db

April 16, 2010
By David Kravets

A webcam spying scandal at a suburban Philadelphia school district is broadening, with lawyers claiming the district secretly snapped thousands of webcam images of students using school-issued laptops without the pupils’ knowledge or consent.

Some of the images included pictures of youths at home, in bed or even “partially dressed,” according to a Thursday filing in the case. Pupils’ online chats were also captured, as well as a record of the websites they visited.

Pennsylvania high school officials are accused of spying on students with webcams on district-issued Macbooks. Here is sophomore Blake Robbins sleeping at home in an image secretly and allegedly taken by his school’s laptop. (Posted here with permission of Robbins’ attorneys)

When the story first broke in February, the district said the cameras were activated only handful of times when a laptop was reported stolen or missing — an assertion lawyers suing the district say is false.

“Discovery to date has now revealed that thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots (.pdf) have been taken from numerous other students in their homes, many of which never reported their laptops lost or missing,” attorney Mark Haltzman wrote in a Thursday federal court filing.

In February, the Lower Merion School District deactivated the webcam-tracking program secretly lodged on 2,300 student laptops.

The move came a day after the 6,900-pupil district, which provides students from its two high schools free MacBooks, was sued in federal court on allegations it was undertaking a dragnet surveillance program targeting its students — an allegation the district has repeatedly denied.

The suit was based on a claim by sophomore Blake Robbins that school officials reprimanded him for “improper behavior” based on photos the computer secretly took of the boy at home last fall. One picture shows him asleep at home in October.

That “behavior” turned out to be pill popping. The family said their son was eating Mike and Ike candy.

Thursday’s filing, which claims 400 images of Robbins were taken during a two-week period last fall, also says that an IT administrator at the district “may be a voyeur.” Lawyers suing the district are urging a federal judge presiding over the case to grant a forensic examination of administrator’s personal computer.

The lawsuit said the administrator, who has been placed on paid leave, “invokes the Fifth Amendment to every question asked of her, including a question asked as to whether she had ever downloading (sic) pictures to her own computer, including pictures of students who were naked while in their home.”

The lawsuit seeks class-action status to represent all the district’s 2,300 high school students.

Proposed legislation announced late Thursday by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania) would make it a federal felony to remotely spy on private residences and hotel rooms with video cameras.

Copyright 2009 Condé Nast Digital

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One Comment

  • I deff feel like its an invasion of privacy to take the pics of students, but school computers arent for that stuff anyway so it goes both ways.

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