The American Civil Liberties Union almost didn't have to show up for this one. Last Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois ordered the Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia to stop spying on its students.
The federal judge issued orders that prevent the district from "remotely activating any and all webcams embedded in laptop computers issued to students ... or from remotely taking screenshots of such computers." The order stems from a privacy lawsuit brought last week by the family of a student who was accused of "improper behavior in his home" by a Harriton High School assistant principal.
Blake Robbins of Penn Valley was suspected of selling drugs and popping pills. The "evidence" was provided by a photograph taken by the webcam of his MacBook laptop while he was at home. Until the Robbins case surfaced, few families knew that the laptop cameras could be switched on by the district without the students' knowledge.
Call it homebound instruction on George Orwell's "1984."
Because the webcam can see anything happening in the room where the laptop sits, it isn't too much for students and their parents to be concerned about abuse by school officials with access. The Lower Merion district said it had activated webcams 42 times in an attempt to recover lost and stolen computers.
Mr. Robbins' laptop wasn't reported lost or stolen, but his rights were violated by a school that acted like Big Brother. You don't need an ACLU lawyer to argue that school officials have no right to enter a student's home without permission. Blake Robbins said the laptop image of him was misinterpreted by the school anyway. He insists he was eating candy, not drugs.
The webcam system on the district's laptops is now out of commission. What hasn't gone away is concern over what school officials may have seen when other webcams were on. Lower Merion officials are planning an independent inquiry, and they need to lay the results before the public.
In the meantime, all school districts that issue take-home laptops should inform parents of the webcams' capabilities and make clear that they will not be used to spy on students at home. It's tough enough monitoring student behavior at school.