School administrators committing crimes

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

In light of this weeks events, it is good to remember the time that school administrators used spyware on computers to spy on children even when the children were at home in their bedrooms.

The suit alleged that, in what was dubbed the “WebcamGate” scandal, the schools secretly spied on the students while they were in the privacy of their homes. School authorities surreptitiously and remotely activated webcams embedded in school-issued laptops the students were using at home. After the suit was brought, the school district, of which the two high schools are part, revealed that it had secretly snapped more than 66,000 images. The suit charged that in doing so the district infringed on its students’ privacy rights. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, ordering the school district to stop its secret webcam monitoring, and ordered the district to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

The lawsuit was filed after 15-year-old high school sophomore Blake Robbins was disciplined at school, for his behavior in his home. The school based its decision to discipline Robbins on a photograph that had been secretly taken of him in his bedroom, via the webcam in his school-issued laptop. Without telling its students, the schools remotely accessed their school-issued laptops to secretly snap pictures of students in their own homes, their chat logs, and records of the websites they visited. The school then transmitted the snapshots to servers at the school, where school authorities reviewed them and shared the snapshots with others. In one widely published photo, the school had photographed Robbins in his bed. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Attorney’s Office, and Montgomery County District Attorney all initiated criminal investigations of the matter, which they combined and then closed because they did not find evidence “that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent”. In addition, a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee held hearings on the issues raised by the schools’ secret surveillance, and Senator Arlen Specter introduced draft legislation in the Senate to protect against it in the future. Parents, media, and academics criticized the schools, and the matter was cited as a cautionary example of how modern technology can be used to infringe on personal privacy.

In July 2010, another student, Jalil Hasan, filed a parallel second suit. It related to 1,000+ images that the school snapped surreptitiously via his computer over a two-month period, including shots of him in his bedroom. The district had deactivated its surveillance of the student in February 2010, after the Robbins lawsuit was filed. Five months later—pursuant to a court order in the Robbins case—it informed Hasan for the first time that it had secretly taken the photographs. The district was put on notice of a third parallel suit that a third student intended to bring against the district, for “improper surveillance of the Lower Merion High School student on his school issued laptop”, which included taking over 700 webcam shots and screenshots between December 2009 and February 2010.

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