PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors and the FBI on Monday said they would join a probe into whether a Philadelphia-area school district spied on students using remotely controlled cameras in school-issued laptops.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for southeastern Pennsylvania said it would join local prosecutors and police in the investigation into allegations Lower Merion School District covertly activated webcams used by 42 students at two high schools.
The parents of Blake Robbins, a 15-year-old student, have sued the school district in federal court, saying officials used the webcam in their son’s laptop to spy on him at home.
“The webcam will capture anything happening in the room in which the laptop computer is located, regardless of whether the student is sitting at the computer and using it,” the lawsuit says.
The school district says the webcams were installed to prevent theft of the laptops which are issued to every student. The district said it has purchased 2,620 laptops over the last two years at a cost of $1,000 each.
“The district never did and never would use such tactics as a basis for disciplinary action,” said superintendent Christopher McGinley in a statement.
The district’s technology department activated tracking software in the webcams on 42 laptops reported lost or stolen during the current school year, the district said. Eighteen have been recovered.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said it does not normally announce investigations before they are complete but is making an exception in this case because the community needs to be assured that law enforcement is investigating the incident.
“The issues raised by these allegations are wide-ranging and involve the meeting of the new world of cyberspace with that of physical space,” U.S. Attorney Michael Levy said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs, said it believes the case is unique and raises questions of whether the school district violated the boy’s rights to privacy and against unreasonable seizure.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania, also includes a class action on behalf of the approximately 1,800 students at the two high schools.