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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Civil Liberties

Laura Ingle

New York, NY


School Spying Case In Pennsylvania

February 22, 2010 - 6:30 AM | by: Laura Ingle

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The school webcam spy case continues to spark questions about student security and school administrators’ rights in Philadelphia. Last week, a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed against the Lower Merion School District, its board of directors and the superintendent for allegedly violating the privacy of a 15-year-old student at Harriton High School by remotely activating the webcam inside a school-issued laptop computer. Now, the FBI has reportedly opened an investigation into the case to see if there were any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws that were violated.

Blake Robbins and his mother Paige

School Spy Alleged Victim

Blake Robbins and his 18-year-old sister both attend Harriton High School and were among the 2,300 students in the district to receive the Apple laptops. All students and their parents had to sign a “memorandum of understanding” to take the laptops home with wording that explained the rules and regulations that came along with the computers. The paperwork did not include the disclosure that the school district had the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcams at any time, without student’s permission.

Last November, Blake Robbins was called to the office by the vice principal to talk about what she called his “improper behavior” at home. Vice Principal Lindy Matsko allegedly cited as evidence a photograph taken with the computer’s webcam that had been activated in Blake’s bedroom. Robbins claims that the Matsko accused him of selling drugs when she saw him holding up what she believed to be pills. The 15-year-old says he was simply holding his favorite candy, “Mike And Ikes,” which are small oblong, chewy jelly beans.

Mother of Blake Robbins shows what her son's favorite candy looks like

Mother of Blake Robbins shows what her son

Blake’s mother Holly backs up her son’s claim that he is constantly eating the candy, and believes that he was not selling drugs. She and her husband Mike are extremely concerned that the school district turned on their son’s webcam and feel it was a gross invasion of privacy inside their home. The mother of two says it felt like discovering a Peeping Tom in their house.

School district officials say the only time they ever turn on the webcams is when one of the school-issued laptops have been reported lost, stolen or missing, so that they can try to track them down. They concede that the wording in the laptop policy was not sufficient, and did not explain the security feature, but insist that they never spied on students. Lower Merion officials say that they turned the cameras on 42 times in the past 14 months, which helped them recover 28 missing laptops.

“It is not legal for anybody, the government, the police, or the school district, without some sort of warrant or some kind of invitation to come into your home and record what you are doing, or what you are saying,” said Mark Haltzman, the Robbins’ attorney.

The LMSD issued a statement Friday to parents and students, stating that the webcams have been deactivated while a thorough review of the case — and policy — moves forward.

Reaction among students is mixed. Some students tell Fox News that they want to learn more facts before casting judgment on their vice principal and other school administrators. Others say they will only use their computers with a piece of tape over the camera’s eye. With the alleged incident happening in November of last year, Victoria Zuzelo, vice president of the student council at Harriton High, says she wants to know why it took so long for all of this to come out.

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