School district settles webcam spying suit for $610,000

Lower Merion District was accused of snooping on students with school-issued laptop's webcam

A suburban Pennsylvania school district accused of spying on students by using school-issued laptops has agreed to pay $610,000 to settle litigation stemming from its controversial practice.

A suburban Pennsylvania school district accused of spying on students using school-issued laptops has agreed to pay $610,000 to settle litigation stemming from its controversial practice.

Under the proposed settlement, the Lower Merion School District will pay $185,000 to two high school students who had sued the district earlier this year for allegedly snooping on them. The remaining $425,000 will go to attorneys fees.

The proposed settlement was approved by the district's school board of directors Monday. It results from a "lengthy, court-ordered mediation" between all concerned parties, board President David Ebby said in a statement .

"Though we would have valued the opportunity to finally share an important, untold story in the courtroom, we recognize that in this case, a lengthy, costly trial would benefit no one," Ebby noted. The statement did not elaborate on what untold story Ebby was referring to.

The school district, in Ardmore, Pa., has been at the center of a huge controversy over its use of a specialized embedded software product for tracking stolen, lost or missing school-issued laptops. The district provided laptops to about 1,800 of its high school students, but did not inform them about the embedded tracking software, which could be used to remotely activate Webcams on the laptops.

In February, Blake Robbins, a district high school student, and his parents, filed a lawsuit against the school district accusing it of spying on him in his home. The lawsuit charged Lower Merion with remotely activating the Webcam on Robbins' laptop to take thousands of pictures of Blake and others members of his family, including some of Blake in his bedroom partially undressed, and some of him sleeping.

The lawsuit was filed after a school official accused Blake of selling drugs and taking pills based on a photograph captured by the school computer at his home. In court documents, lawyers for Blake accused Lower Merion officials of taking thousands of webcam photos and screenshots of numerous other students, many of whom had never reported their laptops as being missing or stolen.

An investigation conducted on behalf of the district later found that school-issued laptops had taken more than 30,000 photographs, using the activated tracking software.

In July, a second individual , Jalil Hassan, a former high school student from the same district, also sued, claiming that his laptop had snapped close to 500 photographs of him over a two-month period.

The school district itself vigorously denied it had spied on the students and claimed that the only reason it had installed the tracking software was to help it locate laptops reported as lost, missing or stolen.

In August, following an investigation by the FBI and the local district attorney, the U.S. Department of Justice said it would not file criminal charges against the school district because there was no evidence of criminal intent in its actions.

Lower Merion has said it will continue to use the tracking software, but it will not use it to remotely activate webcams or capture screenshots, audio or video.

Under the proposed settlement, Lower Merion will put $175,000 in a trust for Robbins, while Hassan will receive $10,000.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com .

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

This story, "School district settles webcam spying suit for $610,000" was originally published by Computerworld.

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