Here’s your school laptop. Now smile for the hidden camera.

I didn’t quite believe this story out of Philadelphia when I read it Thursday: A school spied on a student at his home via his school-issued laptop. But it has been getting a lot of discussion so I will put it out there for debate.

First of all, do you buy it?

Second, if it is shown to be true, is the school system nuts? This seems a clear violation of the student’s rights.

Update Sunday night: Apparently, now the FBI is investigating since the school officials admitted that they had remotely activated Webcams on school-issued laptops 42 times in the past 14 months to find missing computers. They said they never did so to spy on students.

Here is what the Philadelphia Inquirier reported:

A Lower Merion family has set off a furor among students, parents, and civil liberties groups by alleging that Harriton High School officials used a webcam on a school-issued laptop to spy on their 15-year-old son at home.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court, the family said the school’s assistant principal had confronted their son, told him he had “engaged in improper behavior in [his] home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in [his] personal laptop issued by the school district.”

The suit contends the Lower Merion School District, one of the most prosperous and highest-achieving in the state, had the ability to turn on students’ webcams and illegally invade their privacy.

While declining to comment on the specifics of the suit, spokesman Douglas Young said the district was investigating. “We’re taking it very seriously,” he said last night.

The district’s Apple MacBook laptops have a built-in webcam with a “security feature” that can snap a picture of the operator and the screen if the computer is reported lost or stolen, Young said.

But he said “the district would never utilize that security feature for any other reason.” The district said that the security system was “deactivated” yesterday, and that it would review when the system had been used.

The suit says that in November, assistant principal Lynn Matsko called in sophomore Blake Robbins and told him that he had “engaged in improper behavior in his home,” and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam in his school-issued laptop.

Matsko later told Robbins’ father, Michael, that the district “could remotely activate the webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop . . . at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam” without the knowledge or approval of the laptop’s users, the suit says.

It does not say what improper activity Robbins was accused of or what, if any, discipline resulted. Reached at home yesterday, his mother, Holly, said she could not comment on advice of the family’s lawyers.

Blake Robbins, answering the door at his home, said he, too, could not comment. With a mop of brown hair and clad in a black T-shirt and jeans, he smiled when told the suit had earned him a Wikipedia page and other Internet notoriety.

Mark Haltzman, a lawyer with the Trevose firm of Lamm Rubenstone, which represents the Robbins family, did not return calls seeking comment. Matsko’s husband said the assistant principal could not comment.

Fueled with state grants, the Lower Merion district issued laptops to all 2,300 high school students, starting last school year at Harriton and later at Lower Merion High, to promote more “engaged and active learning and enhanced student achievement,” Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley said in a statement.

Read the entire story and let me know if you agree that there is likely more to this. However, I have to admit that some of the most far-fetched tales that I have ever heard turned out to be true. I only have to harken back to the Barrow County story where the system ran off a teacher because of an anonymous complaint – likely from a co-worker pretending to be a parent – about perfectly acceptable photos  of her sipping wine and drinking beer in Europe on Facebook. If I hadn’t covered the story for myself, I would never have believed it. (And yes, the source of the e-mail in the Ashley Payne case still remains unknown.)

24 comments Add your comment

V for Vendetta

February 19th, 2010
9:10 pm

Although it is technically possible, I have a hard time believing this story. I just can’t imagine what motivation the school would have. Then again, we live in an age of “zero tolerance” . . .

Stranger things have happened.


February 19th, 2010
10:12 pm

The computer security system was poorly designed. If the purpose was to locate a stolen computer, then it doesn’t need to snap pictures. It just needs a LoJack type of recovery system. This is not just disturbing, it’s downright creepy.


February 20th, 2010
12:20 am

My sister has had three children go through the school system cited, with her youngest being a senior at Lower Merion High School. They have all had great experiences and my sister and brother in law, who both teach at the University of Pennsylvania, are big supporters of the schools. They, and my neices and nephew, are all very tech savvy and sensitive to privacy issues, and they have never mentioned this. I’ll have to enquire further, but given their satisfaction with the teachers and administrators of these schools, I’d have to doubt that this incident unfolded as described.

Wounded Warrior

February 20th, 2010
1:12 am

What happens @ home is not school business.


February 20th, 2010
3:28 am

I absolutely buy it.

And what happened to Ashley Payne is unconscionable. That school system should be ashamed.


February 20th, 2010
6:59 am

If it’s true, heads should roll.


February 20th, 2010
8:47 am

Real hard to believe.Sounds like media hos to me.


February 20th, 2010
9:48 am

It freaked me out. I taped a small piece of black paper over the webcam on my own computer. I have the camera turned off all the time or at least I think I do. Creepy is right!


February 20th, 2010
10:31 am

It only goes to show how capable people are in using clandestine methods to achieve their goals. People are vulnerable to all kinds of ills which contribute to the paranoia that grips people and our distrust of people in power.

I have to laugh because when I told my brother that I got a Wii for Christmas, the paranoia in him warned of that exact possibility. Hmmmm, the world we live in.


February 20th, 2010
10:32 am

Spying on people like this is entirely unacceptable. Like cricket, i keep my camera disconnected except when I want to use it. I hope the school personnel responsible for this incident are held accountable, and I certainly hope that the spying was not sanctioned by the district.


February 20th, 2010
2:00 pm

I agree with V’s comments at the beginning of the blog. This should be fairly easy to validate.

If it comes back that the family was simply being paranoid and this did not happen, I would how much media attention that story would get….

Ole Guy

February 20th, 2010
3:28 pm

The assistant principal, in the presence of his attorney, needs to answer the questions 1) exactly what are the inappropriate behaviors, and 2) how are these behaviors to be considered school business. Quite obviously, someone way beyond the assistant principal’s level within the food chain mandated the installation of spy cams in these lap tops. They need to be ferreted out and made legally accountable.

If there is stonewalling, as there is sure to be, the matter should go to state leadership and, if necessary, beyond. This smacks of Boy Bush and his Patriot Act.

It Takes One

February 20th, 2010
4:21 pm

It’s not just about the system. It only takes one person to do something this stupid. They apparently read the same book that the idiots who strip search elementary school kids or have them arrested for writing on a desk read.


February 20th, 2010
7:38 pm

FBI is now involved in this.,2933,587034,00.html?test=latestnews

This sounds like laptops issued by any employer could contain such devices and everyone who has a computer, laptop, or other multimedia device that is issued to them may want to check it out for similar remote control software. It sounds like the potential misuse is not just limited to schools.


February 20th, 2010
7:43 pm

All of the school officials and those working in the super’s office should be immediately arrested and held without bail on charges of child pornography charges. This is exactly why those working in the school systems today are nothing more than minimum wage minions who shouldn’t have a job anywhere.


February 20th, 2010
11:23 pm

I think a full police investigation should take place. Just because someone is a school administrator or a school employee does not give them an automatic pass in invading privacy of students beyond their school. If the police fail to do so then a lawsuit will be the only way to uncover the truth about this matter.

Ole Guy

February 21st, 2010
10:42 am

One more tertiary issue…and perhaps this may come across as the thoughts of a dinasaur…why would a school system, whose primary mission is to convey and teach the basics, place such emphasis on technology, much less permit several hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment to leave school grounds? Don’t they do study halls and library stuff anymore?

In my unsophisticated view, allowing education to become so reliant on technology is tantamount to feeding a recovering alcholic booze thrice daily…the dependence will never be broken. As it now seems, technology has given people, particularly students, permission to not have to think…not a very good way to start ones’ lives.


February 21st, 2010
1:54 pm

Thanks for posting the link, Tony. The article did shed additional insight along with the feelings of some that are supportive of the school system.

Ole Guy, you are a dinosaur. Our children are competing in a global society. In that society, children is other countries are using technology to learn how to gain jobs that some of our children are not qualified for. Why, because of attitudes like yours that question the integration of technology in the schools?


February 21st, 2010
2:16 pm

The use of technology for learning actually requires more thinking and it allows more thought to be carried out at higher levels. Ole guy, if we don’t begin to require more use of technology in schools we are handicapping our children from learning appropriate skills they will need for success.

mystery poster

February 22nd, 2010
8:11 am

@Ole Guy
No, they don’t do study halls anymore. A shame, IMHO.


February 22nd, 2010
8:47 am

The story does not surprise me. School system’s have lost sight of what their job is and about, that is Education. They have become an un-controlled system, with their own rules’, besides the No Tolerance issue. Also, in regard’s to the Barrow County School System, they also have the mentality of a Gestapo force. This is gathered from personal experience!

Greg, Marietta GA

February 22nd, 2010
10:08 am

“all of the school officials and those working in the super’s office should be immediately arrested and held without bail on charges of child pornography charges. This is exactly why those working in the school systems today are nothing more than minimum wage minions who shouldn’t have a job anywhere.”

OOOOoooo-kaaaaaay…. now the crazies are coming out of the woodwork…

Ole Guy

February 22nd, 2010
2:58 pm

Tony, I couldn’t agree with you more. However, I believe, in your excellent reply, you have “hit the nail on the head” in supporting my observations. I completely agree that technology enables students to “think at higher levels”…however, I am sure you would understand that prior to upper-level thoughts, the mind/the gray matter within the brain, must achieve discipline via (lets call them) “lower-level” thought processes.

An “old fashioned” example might be found in the origins of the spell-check feature of the word processing capabilities on today’s computer. Prior to the advent of this marvel of technology, one had only the typwriter and a dictionary. In order to type out the business documents of the era, relatively low-level office personnel had to have a basic grasp of spelling.

Prior to the advent of the hand-held calculator, engineers had to have a firm grasp on the employment of slide rules, and ultimately, pencil-and-paper arithmetic.

We see in today’s commerce environment where, when power is temporarily lost, when technology temporarily “freezes up”, all business comes to a screeching halt…because of the absents of those “lower-level” skills in quantitative relationships, all “higher-level” activity stops.

I firmly believe, Tony, Ernie, and many more out there, that technology, in the schools, should be introduced as an AP topic. After, and only after the basics have been mastered should students be allowed to even look at a computer. To do otherwise only sets up one generation after another for short-term psuedo success and long term failure.


February 23rd, 2010
10:11 am


The security system was not poorly designed, if someone stole your computer, you would want to be able to identify that person, which is the reason for the pictures.

If this student did not return the computer at the end of the school year claming that it was stolen, if the web cam takes a picture of him at a later date because he opened the laptop – he can be charged with theft of property. If in fact the computer were actually stolen, the camera would capture the picture of the thief. Software: PC-Trak™ from GadgetTrak®: Advanced Anti-Theft For Windows

However, this was an abuse of authority because the computer was not reported stolen which is the only time the software is to be used.