Administrators of a wealthy suburban school district have been spying on students and their families at home after giving them laptops fitted with webcams, according to a lawsuit filed by parents.

By Tom Leonard in New York

The Lower Merion School District, which administers a Philadelphia suburb that is one of the wealthiest parts of Pennsylvania, issued all 1,800 students at its two high schools with laptops so they could access school materials at home.

However, according to a civil action filed in the local US district court, neither parents nor their children were ever warned that the access worked both ways.

Michael and Holly Robbins claim they were alerted to the snooping when an assistant principal at Harriton High School warned their son, Blake, in November last year that he was “engaged in improper behaviour in his home”, citing a photo taken on his laptop webcam as evidence.
Mr Robbins said he later verified through the assistant principal, Lindy Matsko, that the school district was able at any time to “remotely activate” the webcam in a student’s laptop and “view and capture” whatever image was in its line of sight, all without the user’s knowledge or permission.

The lawsuit also argues that “many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions” including “various stages of undress”, the lawsuit adds.

Robbins family have filed a class action on behalf of all parents and pupils at the schools against the school district, its board of directors and its superintendent.

They are seeking damages for invasion of privacy, theft of private information and unlawful interception, claiming the defendants made “indiscriminate use” of the webcams to “spy” on students and the families.

The laptops were given out as part of a “one-to-one” computer initiative led by Christopher McGinley, the school’s superintendent.

On the school district’s website, Mr McGinley boasted that it was “ahead of the curve” in this initiative, which would provide an “authentic mobile 21st century learning environment”.
He added that it “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”.

The lawsuit claims the district’s use of the webcams violates the American Constitution’s guarantees of privacy as well as Pennsylvania common law and the US Civil Rights Act.
A statement from the school said: “The District is dedicated to protecting and promoting student privacy. The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today.”