School Sued over Webcam Spying on Students

Another student this week sued the suburban Philadelphia school district embroiled in allegations of spying on high schoolers using their school-issued laptops.

The lawsuit is the second aimed at Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa., which was first accused of spying on students by Blake Robbins and his parents, Michael and Holly Robbins, of Penn Valley, Pa. The Robbins sued the district in February, after Blake was accused by a Harriton High School official of "improper behavior in his home" and shown a photograph taken by his laptop.

A report conducted by an investigator hired by the district later concluded that the cameras had snapped more than 30,000 photographs when school personnel triggered software designed to locate lost, missing or stolen laptops. The report blamed the district's IT staff for the fiasco, saying that a former head of the department had dismissed earlier concerns about privacy violations if the software was used.

On Tuesday, Jalil Hasan, who graduated from Lower Merion High School this year, added his lawsuit to the Robbins.

According to the complaint filed in federal court, Hasan reported his MacBook laptop missing on Dec. 18, but retrieved it the following Monday, Dec. 21, after a teacher turned it in to district personnel.

In the interim, however, the district's IT staff had turned on Theft Track, a feature of the LANRev asset management software Lower Merion deployed, and began snapping photographs using the laptop's Webcam and capturing screenshots of the Mac's desktop.

Theft Track was not turned off when his laptop was returned to him, Hasan charged, and continued to take photos and screenshots for nearly two months.

"The TheftTrak [sic] software remained activated on Jalil's laptop computer beginning on December 21, 2009, until the publication of the Robbins' lawsuit on February 18, 2010, and was only turned off because of the Robbins lawsuit," Hasan's complaint read.

"In fact, had the Robbins' class action lawsuit not been filed, arguably Jalil's laptop would have continued whirring away snapping photographs and grabbing screenshots each time it was powered up," the suit continued.

Hasan's laptop snapped 469 photographs and took 543 screenshots during the eight weeks the tracking software was left running, a fact he was made aware of only when he received a letter earlier this month from the lawyer Lower Merion hired to lead the investigation into the Webcam spying allegations.

Letters like the one Hasan said he received were a result of a May court order by U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter. The letters were to indicate the date of Webcam activations, and the number of photographs and screenshots taken by each affected student's computer.

In his lawsuit, Hasan named the district; the district's board; Christopher McGinley, the superintendent of Lower Merion; two members of the IT staff, Michael Perbix and Charles Ginter; and five John Does as defendants.

The 18-year-old leveled seven charges in the lawsuit, ranging from invasion of privacy to a violation of his civil rights.

"Plaintiffs Constitutional rights were violated as a result of the School District Defendants' official customs and policy of inter alia, requiring the students to use computers with embedded spying capabilities and then allowing and fostering the unfettered, unsupervised, unmanaged and unprotected use of the computer spying capabilities on the students and other victims," Hasan's suit alleged.

Lower Merion responded to Hasan's lawsuit with a statement issued late Tuesday that defended changes it's made since the Robbins' filed their complaint five months ago.

"Given all that has been accomplished regarding the matter of student-laptop security, continued litigation is clearly not the right way to proceed and not in the best interest of the students or the school district community," district said.

Lower Merion will continue to employ tracking software to locate lost or stolen notebooks, but has ruled out using laptops' built-in cameras. "At no time will the Laptop camera be activated remotely nor will screen shots, audio, video or on-screen text be remotely monitored," the district said in a proposed set of revised policies on how it will manage the school-issued MacBooks.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com .

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