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School accused of off-campus Webcam spying

A Philadelphia-area school district has deactivated the Webcams in school-issued laptops after a lawsuit accuses it of remotely activating the cameras to watch students' behavior at home.

I know that there are many parents who would dearly love to spy on their children. Some, because they think their kids might be up to no good. Some, because they think their kids might be up to something so very not good that it might be illegal.

So I am rather moved with concern at a spying accusation that has reportedly been leveled by parents at a Philadelphia-area school district.

According to Computerworld, a class action lawsuit has been served upon the Lower Merion School District, based in Ardmore, Pa. It declares that the school district has taken on surveillance methods of which a sex video store owner or that nice Stasi man in the movie "The Lives of Others" would have been proud.

What is alleged to have occurred is that the parents of student Blake Robbins received word in November from an official at Harriton High School that their son has been involved in "improper behavior in his home."

I can find no specifics as to what this improper behavior was supposed to be, or, indeed, how improper it might have been. However, the official allegedly showed the parents a photo taken by his school-issued laptop Webcam. This photo was not one intentionally taken by Robbins, but rather remotely, by the school.

The story, you see, heads in a direction somewhere east of disturbing. The Robbins family says an assistant principal at Harriton High, Lindy Matsko, confirmed that the school district "in fact has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam contained in a student's personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose, and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the Webcam."

Is your kids' high school watching over them at home? CC Sergis Blog/Flickr

The Philadelphia Daily News reported that the 17-page Robbins complaint makes what seems an obvious but still material point: "Many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors, and their parents or friends, in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various stages of dress or undress."

One can hardly be taken aback to discover that the lawsuit alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment, as well as transgressions of the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and Pennsylvania common law.

Perhaps this tale makes you wonder about the mental workings of any school district that believes there is something vaguely conscionable about what appears to be covert surveillance. But we are living in strange times.

Harriton High School is no slummy establishment. It offers the International Baccalaureate program, for goodness' sake. And its principal, Steve Kline, offers on its Web site that the school's mission is for its students to "enter to learn [and] go forth to serve."

I am told by an alumna of the school that it enjoys its fair share of parents who are plastic surgeons, lawyers, and the like. And the school itself boasts that "Harriton students annually rank among the highest-scoring students on the SATs in Pennsylvania."

This is the sister school of Lower Merion High, which used to educate Kobe Bryant. Here might be the clincher, though: Harriton is in Rosemont, the town that purportedly served as the inspiration for Pine Valley, Pa., in "All My Children." This is Beverly Hills, 9021Snow.

Perhaps the most disconcerting part of this story, if it does turn out to be as the Robbins tell it, is to consider the school official who allegedly decided to commence spying procedures. What might have caused a school official to spy at that precise moment on that precise student? Had this alleged facility been used before? Or had it even been used regularly? The school has yet to offer a reply to the lawsuit.

Perhaps those of you who have kids fortunate enough to have school-issued laptops might just do a little checking over the next few days. Just in case.

Update, 3:46 p.m. PST: Lower Merion School District has issued a statement regarding the allegations on its Web site.

It says the remote-activation Webcam system has been deactivated, effective immediately. It further states that the feature was enabled only "to track lost, stolen, and missing laptops."

While declaring that the system was only able to take "a still image of the operator and the operator's screen," the School District says it "has not used the tracking feature or Webcam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."

The school district says it is continuing to review the matter.