Student Sues Over Alleged Webcam Spying

fromWHYY

Harriton High School's assistant vice principal, Lynn Matsko i

On Wednesday, Harriton High School's assistant vice principal, Lynn Matsko, reads a statement in which she denies spying on students via webcams, and reports getting threatening e-mails. Matt Rourke/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Rourke/AP
Harriton High School's assistant vice principal, Lynn Matsko

On Wednesday, Harriton High School's assistant vice principal, Lynn Matsko, reads a statement in which she denies spying on students via webcams, and reports getting threatening e-mails.

Matt Rourke/AP

A high school student is suing a suburban Philadelphia school district for allegedly spying on him outside of school through the webcam of a school-issued laptop. The allegation has infuriated many parents and spurred a criminal investigation by the FBI.

The case that started with Mike and Ike candy and a laptop computer has become a national focus for concerns about technology and threats to privacy.

Last week, 15-year-old Blake Robbins, a student at Harriton High School, filed a federal lawsuit accusing school officials of using the webcams in school-issued laptop computers to spy on him, and potentially every other student in the district.

According to the suit, back in November, a school official accused Robbins of improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photo taken from the webcam on the student's computer.

The student's attorney, Mark Haltzman, said the school believed a webcam picture caught the student handling pills.

"They were actually Mike and Ikes," Haltzman says. "And the assistant principal approached him and his parents about that, and made allegations that they thought he was selling drugs."

School Official Denies Spying

On Wednesday, Assistant Vice Principal Lynn Matsko gave reporters a brief and emotional statement.

"At no time have I ever monitored a student via a laptop webcam," she said. "Nor have I ever authorized the monitoring of a student via security tracking webcam either at school or within the home. And I never would."

Matsko did not take questions and did not directly address the discussion she is accused of having in the lawsuit.

The Lower Merion School District admits it installed software that gave officials the ability to activate students' webcams at any time. But officials say they only used it to track down lost or stolen computers, and they have now stopped the practice.

Parents Split On Issue

Harriton High School in Bryn Mawr, Pa. i

A student alleges in a federal lawsuit that Harriton High School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., used school-issued laptop webcams to spy on students at home. Matt Rourke/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Rourke/AP
Harriton High School in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

A student alleges in a federal lawsuit that Harriton High School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., used school-issued laptop webcams to spy on students at home.

Matt Rourke/AP

On Tuesday night, about 100 parents packed a school meeting even though the laptop controversy was not on the agenda.

But if they expected District Superintendent Christopher McGinley to talk about the lawsuit, they were disappointed.

"It is our practice and desire to be as open as possible," McGinley said. "But the fact is that we are simply unable to discuss laptop security."

Parents at the meeting seemed to be split on the issue.

Karen Gotlieb likes the school district. But she doesn't like the idea that it might have spied on her 10th-grader.

"The laptop was either on our kitchen table, open, as I cooked dinner or as my other child did his homework, as my husband came in the door and read the mail," Gotlieb said. "It was open in her bedroom while she changed her clothes. She even brought it in the bathroom to listen to music on while she was showering."

Gotlieb's daughter now covers her webcam with a bandage. Other parents say they're using tape and Post-it notes.

More On Privacy In The Digital Age

This NPR special series explores the most relevant privacy issues facing the tech generation.

Mayur Jadeja's 17-year-old daughter, Devaki, has one of the laptops. He's not worried about the school spying on her, but he has another concern about the case.

"If it goes all the way to the Supreme Court, it's going to cost millions of dollars to the school district," Jadeja said. "And I'm the one who will be paying it. I think we as parents and students should stand by [the] school district to defend them."

Federal prosecutors and the FBI confirmed they've launched a criminal investigation.

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