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.

Most curious, though, has been the response from Lower Merion School District. Almost two days after the class action complaint was filed, the district released a statement on its website admitting to nearly every allegation made by Blake Robbins and his attorney.

By saying that “[t]he laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops,” the district admitted that it did indeed have the capability to remotely access portals into students’ private lives.  By saying that “[t]his feature has been deactivated effective today,” the district admitted that the capability had indeed been active. By saying that “the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments,” administrators admitted that the feature can be activated at their own discretion, and by saying that future activation of the remote access capability would not occur “without express written notification to all students and families,” the district admitted that it had peered into private homes with neither notification nor consent.

In fact, perhaps the biggest fight the school district has put up was this week in the hearing preceding the issuance of the order, when the lead counsel for Lower Merion School District voiced concern over the language of any order issued by the court.

We don’t want it to be called an ‘injunction,'” said lead counsel Henry Hockheimer Jr. of Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr, noting that his clients had similar reservations about words like “enjoined,” preferring the more innocuous “prohibited.” Judge Jan E. DuBois agreed, waving his robed arm high along an imaginary marquee, saying that he understood the district wanting to avoid certain types of headlines.

Is it possible that the school district is not quite fully aware of the trouble it’s in? For the most part, after all, educators sit on the far left of the traditional political spectrum, a place where most of their immediate ideological neighbors share the notion that government knows better than the individual, and that schools and school administrators in their infinite wisdom can parent better than parents. Is it really so outlandish to consider that officials at Lower Merion School District wholeheartedly believed not only that it was their right to police its own population -- even at home -- in search of possible wrongdoing, but that they were looking out for the best interests of their students by doing so?

Looking around Courtroom 12-B yesterday afternoon, I became acutely aware that of the four laptops in the room, my own was not the only one with an obscured webcam. Walking through a common area at my law school later yesterday evening, I noticed even more.

Whatever the reasoning, whether the lens obstruction is symbolic in nature -- mine sports a “forever” first class stamp prominently featuring a photo of the Liberty Bell -- or if the concern for privacy is actual, it is clear in the suburbs of Philadelphia that the Nanny State is alive and well, and that even in school districts where the students seem to have everything, true freedom and liberty can still be elusive.