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    Update on Pennsylvania School Accused of Misusing Webcams on Student Laptops

    Last week, in a class-action lawsuit — Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (pdf) — in Pennsylvania, the Robbins family alleged that the Lower Merion School District misused Webcam-enabled laptops it issued to students in order to remotely peep into the students’ homes and violate their privacy. The Robbins said they learned of this after a school official accused their son Blake of  “engag[ing] in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the Webcam embedded  in [Blake’s] personal laptop issued by the School District.” The Robbins family said there was no improper behavior and that the so-called “drugs” in the photo were Mike and Ike’s candies.

    The school district has denied violating anyone’s privacy, claiming the Webcams were only turned on in case of lost or stolen computers, but admitting that the cameras were remotely activated 42 times without parental or student knowledge. The FBI is investigating the case to see if the school district violated federal wiretapping or computer-intrusion laws, and local authorities are also investigating the matter. The school district said that it has disabled the remote-camera activation feature on the more than 2,300 laptops issued to high school students.

    Now, there is more news in the lawsuit. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on an order from the judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois. “The unusual order, signed by a federal judge [Monday], means those running the elite Lower Merion School District can’t say a word about the laptop cameras or any other issues in the suit without giving the other side a copy of what they want to say – plus six hours’ notice. Such communication limits are commonplace in class-action litigation, but rare in the context of a school district at the center of what’s become a nationwide controversy.”

    The court order also says the district must preserve all computer files – particularly captured images – and cannot change the software on the laptops without permission.

    The agreement on the order, negotiated over several hours yesterday by lawyers for the district and the Robbins family, also bars the district from remotely activating the laptops to record images or screen shots as part of the security system that officials said they disabled last week.

    Federal prosecutors last week issued a subpoena for the district’s records related to that system. Yesterday, in another sign of the intensity of the furor, the U.S. attorney and the FBI issued a rare statement confirming their inquiry into whether the snooping system broke any laws.

    The Philadelphia Daily News reports that, though the school district admitted to remotely activating laptop Webcams 42 times, “it remains unknown to the public exactly how many photos Lower Merion School District officials secretly snapped using the embedded webcams on laptops issued to high school students in the district.” Mark Haltzman, the Robbinses’ attorney, said school officials would not tell him how many students had been photographed.

    The Associated Press notes that there are less intrusive technologies for locating lost computers than the Lower Merion School District’s system. “Technology and privacy experts agree that GPS, “call home” and other location tracking software offer better results without raising privacy concerns.” A Lower Merion School District network technician “marveled” at the Webcam system’s “theft-tracking potential in a May 2008 webcast,” reported AP.

    “Fantastic feature — I can’t speak highly enough of it,” network technician Michael Perbix said, describing how the system could not only provide network address data to help police track down a missing machine but also send back screen shots and pictures from the built-in camera at regular intervals.

    Perbix said he had once used the feature to try to locate laptops mistakenly thought to be missing. “By the time we found out they were back, I had to turn the tracking off and I had a good 20 snapshots of the teacher and students using the machines in the classroom,” he said.

    The ACLU of Pennsylvania has filed a “friend of the court” brief (pdf) in support of the Robbinses, and ACLU-Pa. Legal Director Vic Walczak said, if the allegations are true, “this is an egregious invasion of privacy.” (An amicus curiae of “friend of the court” brief is filed by a person or group who is not a party in the case, but wishes to address issues of law, policy, or some other aspect of the case.) In the brief, the ACLU said:

    The right to privacy inside one’s home “is sacrosanct.” The “‘right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion’ stands ‘[a]t the very core’ of the Fourth Amendment.” Indeed, “unreasonable government intrusion into the home is “the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.” Accordingly, it is a “‘basic principle of Fourth Amendment law’ that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.”

    That school officials’ warrantless, non-consensual use of a camera, embedded in students’ laptops, inside the home is a search cannot be doubted. The use of “sense-enhancing technology” to obtain “information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical ‘intrusion into a constitutionally protected area,’” constitutes a search. Electronic video surveillance is sense-enhancing technology that triggers the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

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