By Dan Hardy and Bonnie L. Cook
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 (a veritable John Burroughs of excellence), had the ability to turn on students' webcams and illegally invade their privacy (but would never abuse this awesome power).
The district's Apple MacBook laptops have a built-in webcam with a "security feature" (always security the reason for totalitarian tactics) 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." (But...)The district said that the security system was "deactivated" yesterday, and that it would review when the system had been used.
Widener University law professor Stephen Henderson said using a laptop camera for home surveillance would violate wiretap laws, even if done to catch a thief.
A statement on the district Web site said the lawsuit's allegations "are counter to everything that we stand for as a school and a community." But...
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.
McGinley and Lower Merion School Board President David Ebby did not respond to requests for comment.
Families in the 6,900-student district reacted with shock. Parent Candace Chacona said she was "flabbergasted" by the allegations.
"My first thought was that my daughter has her computer open almost around the clock in her bedroom. Has she been spied on?" (A good thought, but I think that ought to be thought #2. For #1, I would say, "Hey, does my daughter need to have her computer open almost around the clock in her bedroom?")
[A school official] added: "People ask you all the time, 'Can you do this? Can you do this?' . . . But you have to be conscious of students' rights. I would not have walked into that swamp. . . . You want kids to use the technology. You want them to feel safe, to feel trusted." (So you can spy on them more easily.)
The laptop initiative, she said, is "a wonderful program. There were kids in some of the poorer areas that had none of the resources that the other students had. That was what the initiative was for - to give kids a chance." (Poor kids should have access to porn just like the rich ones!)
In a published policy statement, the district warns that laptop users "should not expect that files stored on district resources will be private," and says the network administrator "may review files and communication to . . . ensure that students are using the system responsibly." (Huh? Doesn't that statement contradict the security mantra uttered by every school official in this story?)