Webcam Spying by High School Leads to False Drug Accusations Against Student

February 22, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

A Philadelphia-area school district made news last week when a student accused it of spying on him through an undisclosed software package in his loaner computer. As a Fort Lauderdale cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I was very interested in the story of the Robbins family’s lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Feb. 20 that federal and local prosecutors are investigating the school district for possible violations of wiretap and privacy laws, as well as students’ constitutional right to be free of unreasonable search and seizures. The district is accused of spying on students through webcams built into school-issued laptops the students were allowed to take home.

The district loans laptops to most of its 2,300 high school students, who are free to take them home, the article said. However, it never told them or their parents that it was able to use a software package to remotely take snapshots of laptop users. The school district says this is used only when the computer is reported missing or stolen, and that it’s recovered only 18 out of 42 missing laptops this way. However, the practice came to light after someone from the district took a picture of student Blake Robbins, 15, who says his laptop was never reported missing before officials took a picture of him working on the computer at home. In the picture, he says he is eating Mike & Ike candies, which resemble large pills. On that basis, Harriton High School’s assistant principal accused Robbins of using drugs. The Robbins family is now suing the district.

This has turned into a major public relations mess for the school district, with the FBI joining the criminal investigation and the software maker issuing an update that disables the remote picture-taking feature. As a Miami-Dade cyber crime criminal defense lawyer, I think Robbins would have had a very strong defense if he had been prosecuted or penalized for the alleged drug-taking. The Fourth Amendment gives us the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. That right is somewhat limited for minors who are at school -- but not when they’re at home. That means simply telling students about the cameras is not enough. The school district should have a warrant to search students through the webcams, or at least a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. If the Robbins family is right, they had neither in at least one case. And that means the evidence they had, even if did show drugs, would be hopelessly tainted and inadmissible in court.

The concept of unreasonable search and seizure is as old as the Constitution -- which is to say, more than two centuries old and still going strong. School district attorneys and law enforcement know very well what constitutes an unreasonable search of a minor, or an adult, in the physical world. Very few people would assume that it’s legal to come to a student’s home and take pictures through a bedroom window -- but as this article shows, the school district had no problem doing the same thing with more sophisticated tools. Technology gives us new ways to interact socially, and sometimes, that new context makes authorities forget that the old rules still apply. When they do, it’s my job as a West Palm Beach cyber crime criminal defense attorney to fight back on behalf of individuals’ rights.