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FBI investigates allegations webcam used to monitor student

The FBI has opened an investigation into allegations that a Pennsylvania school official remotely monitored a student at home, a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case told CNN on Saturday.

The official, who asked not to be identified, said the FBI became involved in the case after a family filed a lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District, located outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The family accused an assistant principal at Harriton High School of watching their son through his laptop's webcam while he was at home and unaware he was being watched. The family also says the school official used a photo taken on a laptop as the basis for disciplining the student.

In a statement issued late Friday, District Superintendent Christopher McGinley rejected the allegations.

"At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security-tracking software," he said. "We believe that the administrator at Harriton has been unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family. The district never did and never would use such tactics as a basis for disciplinary action."

A school official said it was a mistake not to make families aware of a feature allowing the school to monitor the computer hardware.

The law enforcement official with knowledge of the case told CNN that the FBI will try to determine whether federal wiretap or computer intrusion laws were violated.

But FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver said he could not disclose the existence of an investigation.

In a lawsuit seeking class-action status filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley are suing the school district, its board of directors, and the superintendent. They claim that the district unlawfully used its ability to remotely access a webcam on their son's laptop computer, which was issued by the district.

The lawsuit says that on November 11, 2009, the plaintiff's son was told by the assistant principal at Harriton High School that he was caught engaging in "improper behavior" in his home which was captured in an image via the webcam. According to the Robbins' complaint, neither they nor their son were informed of the school's ability to remotely access the webcam. It is unclear what the boy was doing in his room or if any punishment was given out.

Doug Young, spokesman for the Lower Merion School District, told CNN that the district would only remotely access a laptop if it was reported lost, stolen or missing.

If that happened, the district would first have to request access from its technology and security department and receive authorization, he said. Then it would use the built-in security feature to take over the laptop and see whatever was in the webcam's field of vision, potentially allowing them to track down the missing computer.

During the 2009-2010 school year, 42 laptops were reported lost, stolen or missing, and the tracking software was activated by the technology department in each instance, according to McGinley's statement. A total of 18 laptops were found or recovered.

McGinley said the parents and students were not explicitly told about this built-in security feature.

"Despite some reports to the contrary, be assured that the security-tracking software has been completely disabled," McGinley said in the statement.

"This feature was limited to taking a still image of the computer user and an image of the desktop in order to help locate the reported missing, lost, or stolen computer (this includes tracking down a loaner computer that, against regulations, might be taken off campus)."

In order to receive the laptop, the family had to sign an "acceptable-use" agreement. In order to take the laptop home, the family would also have to buy insurance for the computer.

In the "acceptable-use" agreement, the families are made aware of the school's ability to "monitor" the hardware, Young said, but it stops short of explicitly explaining the security feature. He said that was a mistake.

Young told CNN that the district is very proud of the laptop program and its ability to close the technology gap between students who have computers at home and those who don't. He acknowledged that the schools have to take a step back to re-evaluate the policies and procedures surrounding the program.

Multiple requests for further comment from the lawyer for the Robbins', Mark Haltzman of Lamm Rubenstone LLC, went unanswered.


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Posted in: News on March 2, 2010 @ 7:35 PM

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