Pa. School District Displays 'Improper Behavior'

PHILADELPHIA—Kids in the Lower Merion School District may have been assigned to read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for English class, but they probably had no idea that one day, they'd be living it.

According to a report on the Courthouse News website, more than 1,800 students at Lower Merion High in Ardmore and Harriton High in Rosemont, both in Philadelphia's western suburbs, were given laptop computers by the school district in an effort to "enhance opportunities for ongoing collaboration, and ensure 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," according to school Superintendent Christopher McGinley.

What the kids (and their parents) didn't know, however, was that the webcams embedded in each laptop could be remotely activated, turning them into the sort of spy-cams that Big Brother required each home in Oceania to be filled with.

The illegal surveillance first came to light on Nov. 11, 2009, when Lindy Matsko, an assistant principal at Harriton High, informed student Blake Robbins that, according to the complaint filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, "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."

Robbins' father then spoke to Matsko, who revealed 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."

In addition, the webcam could capture images of any person or thing in view of the camera lens whether its owner was using the computer or not—and of course, the School District never bother to inform its students or their parents that it had such a capability.

As a result of his father's conversation with Matsko, Blake Robbins and his parents filed a class action suit against the school district and Superintendent McGinley, charging them with, among other violations, improper interception of electronic communications under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and theft of intellectual property under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as violations of the plaintiffs' civil rights under color of law (42 U.S.C. §1983) and invasion of privacy under the Fourth Amendment.

But what may make this case even more interesting for law enforcement is the child pornography angle. After all, many students use their personal laptops at desks in their own bedrooms, and not being aware that school officials might be watching their every move via the webcams, those children probably had no inhibitions about undressing in front of the webcam, masturbating or even having sex with their fellow students—all possibly under the watchful eye of some anonymous school official, who also had the capability of recording still images and video from the webcam feed.

The complaint itself makes no mention of child porn, and does not specify what "improper behavior" on Blake Robbins' part gave rise to his conversation with Matsko. However, when the Robbinses' attorney, Mark Haltzman of Trevose, Pa., gets around to filing Motions for Discovery on the school district, it will be interesting to see what images district officials produce in response.