Big Brother Is Here, Families Say

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) - A federal class action claims a suburban school district has been spying on students and families through the "indiscriminant use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students," without the knowledge or consent of students or parents.
     The named plaintiffs say they learned that Big Brother was in their home when an assistant principal told their son that the school district knew he "was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff's personal laptop issued by the school district."
     The families say the Lower Merion School District issued Webcam-equipped personal laptop computers to each of its approximately 1,800 high school students: in Harriton High School in Rosemont, and Lower Merion High School in Ardmore. The schools issued the computers as part of a "one-to-one" laptop computer initiative lauded by Superintendent Christopher McGinley as an effort that "enhances opportunities for ongoing collaboration, and ensures that all students have 24/7 access to school based resources and the ability to seamlessly work on projects and research at school and at home."
     But the parents and students say that, without their knowledge, the access went both ways. Nowhere in any "written documentation accompanying the laptop," or in any "documentation appearing on any Web site or handed out to students or parents concerning the use of the laptop," was any reference made "to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam at any time the school district wished to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera," the complaint states.
     The complaint states: "On November 11, 2009, plaintiffs were for the first time informed of the above-mentioned capability and practice by the school district when Lindy Matsko ('Matsko'), an assistant principal at Harriton High School, informed minor plaintiff that the school district was of the belief that minor plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff's personal laptop issued by the school district.
     "Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through Ms. Matsko, that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a student's personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.
     "Additionally, by virtue of the fact that the webcam can be remotely activated at any time by the school district, the webcam will capture anything happening in the room in which the laptop computer is located, regardless of whether the student is sitting at the computer and using it.
     "Defendants have never disclosed either to the plaintiffs or to the class members that the school district has the ability to capture webcam images from any location in which the personal laptop computer was kept."
     The class includes all students who were provided with a webcam-enabled laptop computer, and their families.
     Defendants include the Lower Merion School District, the Board of Directors of the Lower Merion School District, and Superintendent McGinley.
     The plaintiffs seek class damages for invasion of privacy, theft of private information, and unlawful interception and access to electronic information, in violation of the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Fourth Amendment, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and Pennsylvania common law.
     They are represented by Mark Haltzman with Lamm Rubenstone of Trevose, Pa.