Class Action Complaint Alleges School District Use of Laptops to Surveil Students

March 22, 2010. Blake, Michael and Holly Robbins filed a complaint [17 pages in PDF] in the U.S. District Court (EDPa) on February 11, 2010, against the Lower Marion School District (LMSD) and others alleging violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (18 U.S.C. 2511), Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 U.S.C. 1030), and Stored Communications Act (18 U.S.C. 2701), violation of their rights under the 4th Amendment (42 U.S.C. 1983), and violation of other laws, in connection with the school district's alleged clandestine and unauthorized use of school issued laptop computers to engage in remotely controlled webcam monitoring of students in their homes.

On March 8, 2010, David Ebby, President of the Board of Directors of the LMSD, gave a speech at a school board meeting in which he disclosed some information regarding the school district's activities and the lawsuit.

On March 22, 2010, the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) announced that it will hold a hearing on the topic in Philadelphia on March 29. The Senate will begin is Spring recess at the end of this week.

Summary of Complaint. The plaintiffs are Michael and Holly Robbins (parents) and Blake Robbins (their laptop wielding son). They also seek to represent a class of similarly situated persons. The complaint states that this would be about 1,800 students at two high schools in the district, and their immediate family members.

The defendants are the LMSD, located in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and its Board of Directors and Superintendent.

The complaint alleges that "Unbeknownst to Plaintiffs and the members of the Class, and without their authorization, Defendants have been spying on the activities of Plaintiffs and Class members by Defendants' indiscriminate use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District."

The complaint states that every student in two high schools receives a personal laptop, but no documents or disclosures reveals any reference "to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam at any time the school district wished to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera at the time of activation".

The complaint contains no allegation that school district ever activated any audio microphone in any of these personal laptops. Nor does the complaint allege that the school district ever intercepted any voice over internet protocol communications, email or data. Nor does the complaint allege that the school district ever accessed any student's stored documents on any of these personal laptops or any student's data stored elsewhere.

The complaint contains no allegation that the school district's activation of  webcams extended to any laptop or computer owned by a student.

The complaint also alleges that an LMSD Assistant Principal "informed minor Plaintiff that the School District was of the belief that minor Plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in the minor Plaintiff's personal computer issued by the School District".

The plaintiffs seek money, including compensatory damages and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief.

For a summary and analysis of the claims pled in the complaint, see related story in this issue titled "Analysis of Claims in Robbins v. Lower Marion School District".

The complaint also alleges that the laptop webcams captured images of students and/or their parents "in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various states of dress or undress".

The complaint adds that "Should discovery disclose that Defendants are in possession of images constituting child pornography" under Pennsylvania state law, then "Plaintiffs will amend this Complaint".

LMSD Statements. Board President David Ebby stated on March 8 that the school district "immediately disabled" the application. He also announced the commencement of an internal investigation.

He also disclosed that the application installed on the student laptops is made by LanRev. He described it as a "security application".

The LMSD also describes the use of this application in a web page titled "Laptop Security FAQ". The LMSD describes the application as a "tracking-security feature" intended to "recover lost, stolen or missing student laptops".

The LMSD adds that "Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the district's and technology department. The tracking-security feature took a still image from the webcam and  a screenshot."

This company has been acquired by Absolute Software Corporation. The SJC announced that John Livingston, the Chairman and CEO of Absolute Software, will testify at its hearing on March 29.

Absolute Software states in its web site that it makes products for "tracking, managing and securing mobile computers and devices for better data protection, easier IT asset management and managed computer theft recovery".

This case is Blake Robbins, et al. v. Lower Marion School District, et al., U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

See, related stories titled "Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to Hold Hearing on Video Laptop Surveillance", "Analysis of Claims in Robbins v. Lower Marion School District", and "School District Webcams and 2252/2252A" in this issue, TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 2,062, March 23, 2010.