Big Teacher Is Watching You

My laptop's webcam now has a postage stamp covering it. Does yours?

This week, a district court judge in Philadelphia, PA, had to do the unthinkable: issue an order preventing a school district from further remote reactivation of webcams on laptop computers issued to nearly 2,000 high school students, a practice which has left many students and parents wondering whether school administrators had unfettered access into their homes and lives.

Just last week, a high school sophomore named Blake Robbins filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against the Lower Merion School District, the wealthy destination district on Philadelphia’s prestigious Main Line which gave the world numerous doctors, lawyers, financial managers -- and Kobe Bryant. The school district, Robbins alleges, has been spying on students and students’ families in their own homes by means of remote access to webcam-equipped laptop computers provided to all students through an initiative funded largely by federal and state grants.

Neither students nor parents were provided notice by Lower Merion School District about the remote-access capability when the computers were distributed or at any other time. Robbins and his family only discovered the capability when the 15-year-old was approached at school by an assistant principal at Harriton High School and accused of engaging in “improper behavior” in his own home.

A photograph captured by Robbins’ laptop webcam was offered as evidence.  The “improper behavior” which so concerned school administrators? Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko pointed to what looked like prescription drugs being held by Robbins in the photograph and voiced concern that he was selling drugs; in reality, Robbins was eating his favorite candy, Mike & Ikes, while at the computer in his own home.

Lower Merion School District, Robbins claims, has violated a long list of federal and state laws designed to protect personal privacy and stored information, including but not limited to the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, §1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and Pennsylvania common law. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Even for those who do not read a bona fide right to privacy into the Constitution, considering that the Fourth Amendment was written and drafted by our founders in response to the practice so many years before of British soldiers who conducted warrantless searches of colonists’ homes in search of signs of smuggling, that this case features an overreaching school district peering into private homes without notice or consent, all in search of “improper behavior” of the sort that Robbins was confronted with, should be cause for alarm for anyone who values liberty and individual freedom.

In the week which has followed the filing of the complaint, a number of students have come forward to say that either they noticed a green light indicating an active camera illuminate arbitrarily, or that they may not have noticed the light but often have the laptop open in their bedrooms, or even in their bathrooms, where music from iTunes can make showering more enjoyable for anyone who belts out Lady Gaga tunes into their shampoo bottle.