Second suit over Lower Merion webcam snooping

Fatima Hasan spoke about her outrage at the webcam images that led son Jalil to sue the Lower Merion School District over invasion of privacy.
Fatima Hasan spoke about her outrage at the webcam images that led son Jalil to sue the Lower Merion School District over invasion of privacy.
Posted: July 28, 2010

The letter from Lower Merion school administrators delivered the news three weeks ago - her son had been secretly monitored by the webcam on his school-issued laptop. But only when Fatima Hasan saw the evidence did the scope of the spying on her son Jalil become apparent.

There were more than 1,000 images surreptitiously captured by the computer - 469 webcam photographs and 543 screen shots. All were evidence in the case against the Lower Merion School District and its now-abandoned electronic monitoring policy.

"I was really shocked. I didn't know what I was walking into," Fatima Hasan said Tuesday afternoon after her son, now 18, filed a civil lawsuit for invasion of privacy against the Lower Merion district and others. "They were all pictures of Jalil, and all Web shots from his laptop, and that's not an easy feeling."

The suit joins one filed in February by Blake Robbins, a student at Harriton High School, and for the first time draws in Lower Merion High School, where Jalil Hasan was a senior. For the high-achieving school district, the second civil suit raises the stakes in an already-costly legal fight.

The cases are similar in their broad outlines. The electronic monitoring began after school-issued computers were reported missing. In both cases, the system was simply left on long after the laptops were recovered. Hundreds of photos and screen shots were captured on a predetermined schedule.

The photos from Hasan's computer included shots of him in his bedroom and of other family members and friends. In a widely published photograph, Robbins, now 16, was shown sleeping on his bed.

According to the suit, Hasan forgot his computer in cooking class on Dec. 18, a Friday. A teacher turned it in to the technology department that day. On Dec. 21, Hasan retrieved his computer from the technology office.

At some point that day, school officials activated the security system. The system kept capturing images for nearly two months and was only deactivated after the first lawsuit was filed.

"When I saw these pictures, it really freaked me out," said Jalil Hasan, who will attend culinary school in California in the fall.

His mother said she could not understand why the tracking system was activated.

"What was it turned on for if you had [the computer] in your possession?" she asked. "It never left the school, so you could have clearly seen it."

Fatima Hasan, who owns a day-care center in the Overbrook section of the city, said she moved to Ardmore from Philadelphia so her son "would be in a safe environment" for high school.

"But then, when I'm looking at these pictures," she said, "and I'm looking at these snapshots, I'm feeling like, 'Where did I send my child?' "

The district commissioned its own investigation and admitted that the monitoring system was flawed. The two Lower Merion staffers authorized to activate remote monitoring are on administrative leave.

The district's investigation revealed that the webcams had been activated 76 times in less than two years, producing more than 58,000 images. The district acknowledged that more than half the images were created because technicians failed to turn off tracking software after missing laptops were recovered.

Suing the district over the surveillance has not proven popular, though the Robbins suit was filed as a potential class action and was designed to cover every student affected. The district has challenged the legal status, and parents of more than 500 students signed a petition saying they wanted no part of a legal action that would be paid for with their tax dollars.

According to the most recent estimates, the combined legal bills and other case-related expenses from Robbins' suit have reached about $1.2 million.

Mark S. Haltzman, who represents Hasan and the Robbins family, said class-action status was the most efficient course, though for the moment, both suits are filed separately.

Asked if he expected more lawsuits, Haltzman said, "I think that each person has to decide for themselves whether they want to come forward."

The district did not respond to the allegations in the suit, but in a statement said "continued litigation is clearly not the right way to proceed." It noted that new policies governing the use of technology had been drafted.

"While the results of that investigation reveal that mistakes were made, there is no evidence that any students were individually targeted," the statement said.


Contact staff writer Derrick Nunnally at 610-313-8212 or dnunnally@phillynews.com.

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