Communications and Media

Privacy Takes Direct Hits from Webcams and Buzz

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Another student has filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District. The lawsuit stems from the same webcam wiretapping incidents in 2009 that spurred earlier lawsuits and a criminal investigation. It claims the school district captured over 4,000 webcam photos and a similar number of screenshots from the student's laptop computer. The photos are said to include many of the student and his family members in compromising or embarrassing positions.

The student involved in the earlier case, Blake Robbins, and the school district settled that matter in October 2010. The district paid Robbins $175,000 and court costs amounting to $425,000. A third suit was settled by the district by payment of $10,000 to the affected student.


Criminal charges won't be filed against Pennsylvania school officials who used computer web cameras to spy on students in their homes. Federal prosecutors say there wasn't sufficient evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the officials intended to commit a crime.

Lower Merion School District officials remotely activated cameras on laptop computers issued to students for use at home and school. According to an investigator, school technicians took 30,881 webcam photographs and 27,761 screenshots while monitoring more than 40 students without their knowledge. The District says the tracking software was authorized in order to find lost or stolen computers.

A class action lawsuit filed against the School District by a student and his parents is still pending. The suit accuses the District of violating federal computer privacy laws and the Fourth Amendment.

The District disabled the tracking software in February 2010. To comply with a court order, the District also issued policy guidelines that limit when and how school staff can track computers.

Original Article

Yes, technology is wonderful. Until it's used against us. Recently, a rash of technology uses (or abuses?) makes it look as though our individual privacy rights aren't being respected. In fact, it seems that Orwell was right. "Big brother," or someone, may be watching what we do.

The Attacks

Three recent incidents show just how fierce and frightening individual privacy rights of ordinary people like you and me are.


In January 2010, single-mom Dianne Annunziao needed some help with her new Dell laptop. She called Dell's customer support department from her home. At some point during the call, Annunziato noticed a small box on her computer screen had appeared. What was in the box? Her face.

The Dell support technician activated the webcamon Annunziato's laptop, without her permission and without telling her about it. She spoke to a supervisor; he responded by laughing. Dell is, however, investigating the matter as a "violation of company policy."

Harriton High School

Like many high schools today, this Pennsylvania high school in the Lower Merion School District handed out laptops to all of its students, including 15-year-old Blake Robbins. He, like most students, used his laptop for what it was intended for. He used it at home, and at school, for studying and homework.

In November 2010, the school's vice principal accused Robbins of "improper conduct," specifically using and/or selling illegal or prescription drugs. What was the school's proof of the misconduct?

A picture taken of Robbins from his laptop inside his house. Someone either at the high school or school district activated the laptop's webcam remotely. Robbins' laptop, and all others given out by the school, have a webcam and software allowing it to be activated without the users knowing about it. According to the district, it's a security measure to track lost or stolen laptops.


Buzz is a new social-media tool or "utility" created by Google. It lets users share stories, photos, videos, "and more." It's another portal or doorway for those of us who like interacting in the virtual world of Twitter, MySpace, and other social media.

The problem, according to some users, is that Buzz may let practically anyone know who's in your email address book.

How? When you create a new account, Buzz makes a "buddy list" for you based on the names in your Gmail account. (This is Google's email service). Unless you know about it and deactivate it, anyone else on Buzz can see your buddy list.

Legal and Ethical Problems

You don't need to be a lawyer to see some of the legal problems here. We have a right to privacy, and when this right is violated, without our knowledge or consent, it can get messy for the violator. The Lower Merion School District probably knows this. It hired an attorney to investigate the matter.

Regardless of the legal issues, there are ethical problems. Why do you need the power to pry into someone else's affairs? And, when do you use that power? Dell and Google may see a consumer backlash because of their conduct.

Users and providers of technology should follow some simple rules:

  • If your technology gives you access to our private matters, tell us about it, clearly and up front
  • If you think you need to use that technology, ask our permission first
  • If, like the school district claims, there are security reasons that make prior notice impractical, you need a sound, written policy for when, how, and by whom the technology will be activated. And, the person affected needs to be told about it as soon as possible afterwards
  • Be careful when you download or sign up for that new utility or app. Read the fine print and terms
  • When buying a new computer, check if it has a webcam and what software it uses. Also, check the owner's manual for details about remote access. If remote access is possible, either don't buy that computer, make sure you uninstall the webcam or software, or understand how it's used

Privacy is everyone's concern. Stand up and protect our rights and respect the privacy of others.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Can my employer monitor and read my email?
  • Does it matter if my computer's webcam is activated by someone outside the US, like a customer support center that's located overseas?
  • If a school can have and activate cameras inside restrooms and locker rooms, why can't it activate laptop webcams?
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