Lower Merion schools hit with new webcam spying suit

Posted: June 08, 2011

Eight months after the Lower Merion School District thought it had settled the furor over secret monitoring of students' laptops, the district faces a new legal battle on the issue.

On Monday, a 2009 graduate of Harriton High School sued the school district, claiming it violated his civil rights by capturing nearly 8,000 webcam photos and screen-shots from his laptop between September 2008 and March 2009.

The plaintiff, Joshua Levin, claims he was "shocked, humiliated and severely emotionally distressed" after viewing the images last summer.

A school district spokesman, Doug Young, said district officials had tried to resolve the complaint without legal action but that Levin had "flatly refused" mediation attempts.

He called Levin's lawsuit "solely motivated by monetary interests and a complete waste of tax dollars."

Neither Levin, who now lives in Philadelphia, nor his attorney, Norman Perlberger, could immediately be reached for comment.

Lower Merion paid more than $1.6 million last year to litigate and settle claims that it surreptitiously spied on students through webcams on the laptops it gave to each of its nearly 2,300 high school students.

The school district acknowledged that it had been using tracking software that let it remotely activate webcams on student laptops and view the images.

In less than two years, staffers activated the webcams on more than 40 laptops, typically after students reported the computers lost or stolen.

But Lower Merion employees often forgot to turn off the webcams after the missing laptop was recovered, and the computers ultimately captured and sent more than 65,000 images back to district computer servers.

The settlements included $175,000 paid to Blake Robbins, a Harriton student who first exposed the practice in a lawsuit that drew worldwide attention.

The photos snapped by Robbins' laptop included images of him sleeping in his bed and pictures of his family. A second student, Jalil Hasan, received a $10,000 settlement.

Levin's complaint, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, doesn't describe the nature or type of images he said were captured by his computer.

Mark Haltzman, who represented Robbins and Hasan, and had access to most of the images captured by the district's computer system, was skeptical that Levin had a valid case for damages.

"As far as I know, this kid didn't suffer anything as a result of the pictures being taken," Haltzman said.

The district has since banned any surreptitious webcam activations and instituted expansive training and policies regarding technology and privacy issues.


Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or at jmartin@phillynews.com.

 

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