Spying on Students via Webcam? Privacy Should Not Be That Dead


What on earth were they thinking? The Huffington Post reported this week that a school district in Pennsylvania is being sued for violating the privacy of high school seniors and their families by activating the Web cameras on school-issued laptops when the students were in their homes. The students were completely unaware that the webcams could be activated remotely.


Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District alleges that the cameras captured images of the students and their families in various states of undress and "other compromising situations," and that "the issue came to light when [the student] was disciplined at school for improper behavior in his home, and gave a still shot taken from the Web cam as evidence of that behavior."


The plaintiffs are suing on behalf of their son and other students in the school district. They allege the school board and school officials violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, as well as state laws.


As commenters to the post have noted, I can see the value in monitoring the students' activity while they are using the laptops in the classroom, because they're using school-issued property. I can also see the value of limiting the software that can be installed on the laptops because they're school-issued property.


It's similar to employers monitoring employee activity while on company time, using company equipment. That's what e-mail and Web use policies are about, and employers should be able to protect their investments in the equipment and in the people who work for them. But they should also at least make employees aware that they are being monitored.


In this case, too, school officials should have notified parents and students that they could activate the webcams remotely to monitor student activity. It doesn't appear that they did. That's one strike against them. But the bigger problem here, as I see it, is that they monitored students after school hours outside of school grounds, and in doing so, they also effectually spied on the students' immediate families without their consent or knowledge.


If private investigators couldn't engage in pretexting to obtain the phone records of HP execs and board members, certainly school administrators should not be able to peer into students' homes.