It may sound like a Hollywood pitch for a summer movie aimed at teens, but it's taken directly from the pages of a federal lawsuit filed in Philadelphia that spins a tale of high school teachers secretly installing cameras in hundreds of students' homes to spy on them.
The class action suit, Robbins v. Lower Merion School District, alleges that 1,800 students were provided with laptop computers equipped with webcams which -- unbeknown to the students or their parents -- could be activated at any time by teachers and school administrators to spy on the students and their families in their homes.
Attorney Mark Haltzman with Lamm Rubenstone of Trevose, Pa., filed the suit alleging claims under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Stored Communications Act, as well as violations of the Fourth Amendment, federal civil rights laws and Pennsylvania's wiretap statute. Haltzman could not be reached immediately for a comment on the case.
The lead plaintiff is Blake J. Robbins, a student at Harriton High School, and his parents, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., and the suit was filed on behalf of a class of students at both Harriton and Lower Merion high schools. The case has been assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois.
The suit quotes from the school district's official announcement of the launch of a program to provide every student with a laptop, which billed it as "an authentic mobile 21st century learning environment" designed to ensure that "all students have 24/7 access to school based resources."
But the suit says students and parents were never warned in the documentation that came with the laptops "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."
Word got out, the suit says, when Robbins was allegedly confronted by Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko with a photo taken from his webcam which, Matsko is alleged to have said, revealed "improper behavior" Robbins had engaged in at home. The complaint offers no details on the nature of the alleged "improper behavior."
Robbins' father was later told, the suit says, that school officials had the ability to "remotely activate" the webcam at any time and to capture any images that appeared -- without the knowledge or permission of the students or their parents.
"We can categorically state that we are and have always been committed to protecting the privacy of our students," Doug Young, a spokesman for the school district, told The Associated Press. Young also said that he could not immediately confirm whether the district has the capability to activate the webcams remotely.
News of the lawsuit set the blogosphere abuzz on Thursday with accounts appearing on Daily Kos, Huffington Post and Above The Law to name just a few.
On one Web site, Digg, a comment was posted by a reader who claimed to be a recent graduate of Harriton High School and said news of the suit appeared to confirm rumors he had heard while attending the school about school officials monitoring students via the webcam.
"Occasionally we would notice that the green light was on from time to time but we just figured that it was glitching out ...," the commenter, identified as willhockey16, wrote.
Some students covered the webcam with tape or a Post-It note, the commenter said, adding: "I always thought they were crazy and that the district, one of the more respectable ones within the state, would never pull some[thing] like this. I guess I was wrong."
The comment closed on a humorous and sarcastic note: "If they have been watching all of us and looking at our logs and looking at what we type, I can assure you that they have seen lots and lots and lots of dirty things."