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School District Settles Lawsuit Brought Over Webcam Spying

A suburban Philadelphia school district  hasagreedto pay $610,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by students who claimed that district employees spied on the students using two-way Webcams that were incorporated into school-issued laptops.

Students in Lower Merion High School, part of the Lower Merion School District, were issued the laptops as part of a new learning initiative designed to allow students to have constant access to school resources and work on projects at school and at home. The materials accompanying the laptop did not reveal that the school could remotely activate the embedded Webcam and obtain images of anyone or anything in range of the Webcam at any time.

(For more Security Management coverage of the case, see "Webcamgate: Student Accuses Suburban Philly High School of Using Webcam to Spy on Him" and "Senate Hearing Weighs Closing Video Surveillance Loophole.")

One student, Blake Robbins, became aware of the school’s ability when he was contacted by the assistant principal. The official accused Blake of engaging in “improper behavior” in his home. As evidence of the wrongdoing, the school produced a photograph from the Webcam embedded in Blake’s school-issued laptop.

Blake’s father, Michael Robbins, then verified that the school could remotely activate the Webcam and view and capture any images within the view of the Webcam, even if the student was not using the computer at the time. Robbins then filed a lawsuit against the school claiming that it invaded Blake’s privacy.

The suit also charged that the school violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, and the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, after investigating the incident, prosecutors declined to bring charges.

The school, which captured at least 56,000 images through the Webcams, claimed that it used them to locate laptops that had been stolen. However, for about 40 students, the Webcams kept taking photos, some as frequently as every 15 minutes. The school has suspended the tracking program.

CORRECTION: The original post stated that the Lower Merion School District agreed to pay $160,000 to settle the lawsuit. The correct total is $610,000.