Lawyer: L. Merion is mum on number of webcam pictures

Students yesterday exit Harriton High, where the family of a sophomore sued the Lower Merion School District over webcam spying on students in the district.
Students yesterday exit Harriton High, where the family of a sophomore sued the Lower Merion School District over webcam spying on students in the district.
Posted: February 23, 2010

IT REMAINS unknown to the public exactly how many photos Lower Merion School District officials secretly snapped using the embedded webcams on laptops issued to high school students in the district.

And the wealthy Montgomery County district, which is now under investigation by the FBI and local authorities, apparently is in no rush to turn that information over to the attorney who exposed the highly controversial "security feature" in a bombshell lawsuit last week.

Mark Haltzman, who filed the invasion-of-privacy suit on behalf of a Harriton High School student, popped off at the district yesterday outside the Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia. He said school officials were blocking his efforts to determine how many students had been photographed.

"It's all in their possession," he told reporters, "and they don't want to let me see it."

Haltzman represents the family of Blake Robbins, 15, who claims that an assistant principal accused him of selling drugs after seeing him holding what he said was Mike and Ike candy in front of his school-issued Apple MacBook - not knowing that its webcam was capturing images of him inside his Penn Valley house.

U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois yesterday ordered Lower Merion School District to preserve all data related to the remote activation of laptops and to refrain from contacting students or parents about the lawsuit without Haltzman's approval.

As the court hearing was under way, U.S. Attorney Michael Levy took the unusual step of confirming the ongoing criminal probe. He said the Justice Department was working with the FBI, the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office and Lower Merion police to determine if the photographing constituted a crime.

"The issues raised by these allegations are wide-ranging and involve the meeting of the new world of cyberspace with that of physical space," Levy said in a statement.

Days after the lawsuit was filed, the district acknowledged that the student webcams had been remotely activated 42 times, but only to recover lost or missing laptops. It said the practice was halted last week. District officials have conceded that they erred by failing to inform students and parents that the cameras could be turned on inside their homes without their knowledge.

"We're trying to figure out what happened here," Henry Hockeimer, a former federal prosecutor retained by Lower Merion, told Judge DuBois. He said the district has hired computer forensic experts and promised the judge that "nothing would be destroyed" that is relevant to the webcam scandal.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania also entered the fray yesterday, filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Robbins.

"No government official, be it police officer or school principal, can enter a private home, physically or electronically, without an invitation or warrant. In this case the officials are not just entering the foyer, but a child's bedroom," said Vic Walczak, the ACLU chapter's legal director. "Assuming the allegations are true, this is an egregious invasion of privacy."

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