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A high school student is suing a suburban Philadelphia school district for allegedly spying on him through the webcam of a school-issued laptop. The allegation has infuriated many parents, and spurred a criminal investigation by the FBI.
From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Fiedler reports.
ELIZABETH FIEDLER: 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.
Mr. MARK HALTZMAN (Attorney): They claimed he was selling drugs, and they were actually Mike and Ikes, and the assistant principal approached him and his parents about that, and made allegations that they thought he was selling drugs.
FIEDLER: Today, that assistant vice principal, Lynn Matsko, gave reporters a brief and emotional statement.
Ms. LYNN MATSKO (Assistant Vice Principal, Harriton High School): At no time have I ever monitored a student via a laptop webcam, 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.
FIEDLER: 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've now stopped the practice.
(Soundbite of school meeting)
FIEDLER: Last 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.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER MCGINLEY (Superintendent, Lower Merion School District): It is our practice and desire to be as open as possible, but the fact is that we are simply unable to discuss laptop security.
FIEDLER: 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.
Ms. KAREN GOTLIEB: The laptop was either on our kitchen table, open, as I cooked dinner, as my other child did his homework, as my husband came in the door and read the mail. It was open in her bedroom while she changed her clothes. She even brought it into the bathroom to listen to music on while she was showering.
FIEDLER: Gotlieb's daughter now covers her webcam with a Band-Aid. Other parents say they're using tape and Post-it notes. 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.
Mr. MAYUR JADEJA: If it goes all the way to the Supreme Court, it's going to cost millions of dollars to the school district, and I'm the one who will be paying it. I think we, as parents and students, should stand by school district to defend them.
FIEDLER: Federal prosecutors and the FBI confirmed they've launched a criminal investigation.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler in Philadelphia.
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