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.)