Pennsylvania Judge Orders School District to Cease Taking Webcam Pictures of Students

May 17, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

A few months ago, I wrote about the case of a Pennsylvania teenager who was falsely accused of taking drugs by his school district. School officials had seen Blake Robbins, a student at Harrington High School outside Philadelphia, eating pill-shaped Mike and Ike candies -- and thought he was popping pills. The twist to this story that interested me as a Fort Lauderdale cyber crime criminal defense lawyer: the school official didn’t see Robbins with the candy in person, but through a webcam installed on his school-owned computer. The case alerted parents in the school district to the district’s practice of using webcams on school-owned computers to remotely watch the students, causing a continuing local scandal. The district claims it used the cameras only to locate lost or stolen machines, while upset parents and students say webcams were routinely used outside of those circumstances.

Now, a federal district court judge has issued an order permanently barring the Lower Merion School District from using the webcams remotely, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported May 15. The permanent injunction, issued last week, will also bar other forms of remote monitoring. The district will be allowed to use a less intrusive theft-tracking system, but it must be disclosed to students and their parents, and families that wish to opt out will have an opportunity to do so. According to the article, the order confirms to the practices the district has already agreed to adopt. An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped draft the order, said she hoped it would be a model for other school districts wrestling with the same issues.

The injunction comes as part of a lawsuit filed by the Robbins family. In fact, it may help resolve the family’s claims, since such an injunction was one of the requests the family made in its original claim. The family has recently dropped a bid for class-action status, reportedly because no other students are believed to have suffered an alleged invasion of privacy similar to his. Lower Merion students will soon find out, because the judge has also agreed to let students and their parents see pictures taken by the cameras, possibly before the pictures are destroyed.

The article notes that these orders have pleased almost all parties in the case, a rare situation. As a West Palm Beach cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I am pleased to see that the school district and the parents seem to have come to an understanding. I’m also pleased that the drug allegations against Blake Robbins have apparently been forgotten. The district is still under FBI investigation, reports say -- but as the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, it’s difficult to say what crime the district would have committed. State and federal laws prohibit private citizens from spying on one another through non-computer technologies, including fairly recent technologies like recording of phone calls without permission. However, no federal law appears to prohibit video spying, which means it may be legal for organizations and individuals to tape-record one another without permission.

In my last post, I noted that video spying, like the alleged spying on Blake Robbins, would be unreasonable search and seizure when and if the government does it. Even without a law specifically forbidding such spying, I believe a reasonable court would come to that conclusion. But for the same reasons, I also support a federal bill like the one the EFF mentions in its post. It may seem odd for a Miami cyber crime criminal defense attorney to advocate yet another criminal law limiting what citizens may do on the Internet, and it’s true that laws can be abused by overzealous prosecutors. But by protecting us from spying by private parties, such a law would reinforce the protections against spying by government agencies -- including school districts -- as well.