Back in April, we talked a bit about two lawsuits against Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania alleging privacy violations for the remote activation of webcams on laptops issued to students. Yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the lawsuits have been settled for just over $600,000; most of that sum will go to the attorney who represented the students, but Blake Robbins, a junior, will have $175,000 put in a trust for him while Jalil Hasan, a recent graduate, will receive $10,000.
“Spycamgate” started back in 2008 when the school district gave its high school students Macbook laptops to use on campus and at home; unbeknownst to the students or their parents, though, each laptop’s webcam could be turned on remotely by the school district — a feature the school district claims was used only to track stolen or missing computers.
But then one day an assistant principal confronted Robbins with a photo taken of him by the webcam, which the assistant principal believed showed Robbins handling drugs; instead, Robbins countered, the “pills” were Mike-N-Ike candy.
Robbins’ lawsuit alleged that the district had actually taken hundreds of photos from the laptop’s webcam, including one in which he was sleeping. Hasan’s complaint claimed that his laptop’s webcam had been turned on for almost two months during his senior year.
After the filing of the lawsuits, the school district turned off the webcam capability and conducted an investigation, which found “no proof that employees intentionally spied on students, but . . . that the system suffered from poor planning and lax oversight.” Indeed, the system had over 50,000 images taken by laptop webcams, including “images of about 40 students whose webcams kept shooting – sometimes every 15 minutes – even after they had recovered their computer.”
Now with the settlement and the federal government’s declining to bring criminal charges against the school district, though, it seems that Spycamgate has come to a close — at quite a price for Lower Merion but hopefully with long-lasting privacy implications for students.