By Frank James

Pressure is mounting on officials in a public school district outside Philadelphia who are accused of using laptop computer technology to spy on students outside of school.

Federal investigators have joined the probe into whether the Lower Merion School District violated its students' and their families' privacy rights by surreptitiously turning on the webcams embedded in laptops issued to students.

The school district officials acknowledge they turned on the webcams to locate 42 missing computers. But it never told the students or their parents that it had turned on the webcams.

And in an allegation that, if true, has an undeniable Orwellian quality, Blake Robbins, a 15-year old at Harriton High School and his parents, accuse an assistant principal of showing Robins a photo obtained by the webcam on his school-issued laptop, a picture the school official said indicated he was "engaged in improper behavior in his home," according to Robbins' lawsuit.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI said today that they would investigate whether the Lower Merion School District activated webcams on the laptop computers that were issued to students.
"We intend to work as a team with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, the Montgomery County Detectives, and the Lower Merion Police Department to determine if any crimes were committed," U.S. Attorney Michael L. Levy said in a statement.
"The issues raised by these allegations are wide-ranging and involve the meeting of the new world of cyberspace with that of physical space. Our focus will only be on whether anyone committed any crimes."

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports the school district agreed in court Monday to preserve evidence on the laptops.

Federal investigators can typically retrieve anything on a laptop that's been deleted. Indeed, it wouldn't be a surprise if the feds now took custody of some of the laptops in question as the investigation proceeds just to preserve evidence.

An AP excerpt:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A suburban Philadelphia school district has agreed to preserve webcam evidence on student laptops as a lawsuit alleges that officials spied on students at home.
A lawyer for a family suing the Lower Merion School District wants to block the district from altering data on about 2,300 student laptops.
Lower Merion officials agreed to preserve evidence but want the right to install anti-virus or other updates. The two sides are in federal court Monday negotiating an agreement.

categories: Crime

5:38 - February 22, 2010