There have been a couple updates on a case concerning student privacy in Pennsylvania. Recap: In February, the Robbins family filed a lawsuit — Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (pdf) — alleging that the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania misused the 2,300 Webcam-enabled laptops it issued to students in order to remotely peep into the students’ homes, take photographs and violate their privacy. Last week, lawyers and computer experts hired by the district to investigate the case released a report (pdf) that said there was “overzealous and questionable use of technology by [Information Services] personnel without any apparent regard for privacy considerations or sufficient consultation with administrators.” Also, Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs Chairman Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), has introduced legislation concerning video surveillance in response to the scandal.
Parents in the school district have raised concerns about the Robbins family filing for class-action damages.”The parents want answers and privacy assurances about the use of cameras on district-issued student laptops, they said in a court filing. But they also want to avoid costly damage awards or a drawn-out class-action litigation with high legal fees, they said.” Now, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the Robbins family has dropped claims for class-action damages. “”We now realize that each person was damaged so uniquely that it wouldn’t be appropriate to seek damages as a class-action,” Mark Haltzman, the Robbinses’ attorney, said.
Also, last month, Wired reported that federal prosecutors are saying U.S. District Judge Jan DuBois, who is presiding over the civil case, was hindering the criminal investigation by refusing to allow them access to the images taken by the school district via the webcams. The Philadelphia Inquirer now reports, “The issue of who should see the photos – and what they can do with them – has been one of the most delicate to emerge since Harriton sophomore Blake Robbins sued in February, accusing the district of using its laptop tracking to spy on students. In replies filed in court this week, lawyers for the district and the Robbinses told the judge that they did not oppose letting agents see the evidence.”
However, there are privacy and civil liberties questions concerning the release of the photos to federal investigators:
Mark Haltzman, the lawyer for Robbins and his parents, said they had no objection because they didn’t believe the photos of Robbins were incriminating. But Haltzman’s letter said he was worried about other students.
“Since the government has not agreed to immunize all students and their parents from prosecution for criminality that could possibly be depicted in the data . . . there is concern that the government will target or, worse, prosecute students and parents based on the illegally obtained evidence,” his letter said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has sought to enter the case on behalf of an unnamed Lower Merion family, also raised concerns about the dissemination of the images, said Mary Catherine Roper, an ACLU attorney.