By MARYCLAIRE DALE
The Associated Press
Monday, February 22, 2010; 12:09 PM
PHILADELPHIA — A student who accuses his suburban Philadelphia school district in a lawsuit of spying on students via their school-issued webcams will ask district officials not to remove any potential evidence from student computers.
Lawyers for the Lower Merion School District are due in federal court on the issue Monday afternoon, on an emergency petition from student Blake Robbins of Penn Valley.
Lower Merion officials confirmed last week they had activated the webcams to find 42 missing or stolen laptops, without the knowledge or permission of students and their families. Both the FBI and local authorities are investigating whether the district broke any wiretap, computer-use or other laws.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief in support of the student Monday, arguing that the photo amounts to an illegal search.
“That school officials’ warrantless, non-consensual use of a camera, embedded in students’ laptops, inside the home is a search cannot be doubted,” the ACLU wrote in a brief filed Monday morning.
Students at the district’s two high schools have taken to taping over the webcam and microphone, even as school officials insist they have stopped the practice.
Robbins sued last week, alleging that Harriton High School officials took a photo of him inside his home. He learned of it when an assistant principal said she knew he was engaging in improper behavior at home, according to his potentially class-action lawsuit.
In the wake of the outcry over the allegations, school district officials have said they have abandoned the practice of remotely activating the webcams. Still, the Robbinses’ lawyer does not want the district to remove any information or programs from the 2,300 laptops issued to students at its two high schools.
“Defendants intend to reclaim each laptop from the possession of members of the class for the purpose of wiping clean the hard drive or otherwise engaging in the spoliation of evidence,” family lawyer Mark S. Haltzman wrote in the emergency petition.
Lawyer Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., who represents the district, urged families and community members not to jump to conclusions.
“These are important issues and we view them seriously,” Hockeimer, a former federal prosecutor, said in a statement.
While courts have held that students can be searched at school given “reasonable suspicion” of a crime – a more relaxed standard than “probable cause,” designed to ensure school safety – the lower standard does not apply in the home, the ACLU argued in its brief.
This is something to be very concerned about; this type of thing can happen to any computer system. Granted while your computer may not have a webcam, most new laptop and notebooks do.
Kids also might have well meaning friends or family that come over and install programs on your system that you don’t know about. Your children’s friends might be thinking they are doing you a favor by giving your child a copy of latest greatest games, or a “cracked” copy of an operating system, or even some educational software. This could very well leave your family in the same state of vulnerability as these kids in PA or worse. Something else to consider is that this could even apply to charter school programs that issue computer systems and/or software to their clients. Not that I have evidence to prove the latter as a fact, but merely to raise the point. Even sites like Facebook and other social networks have been notorious for giving users viruses that can allow a remote user to gain access to your computer system. A hardware based firewall might help to keep you isolated from outside intruders , but don’t bet your privacy on it.