A Pennsylvania school district’s use of webcams on the laptop computers it issued to 2,300 students has sparked national controversy. The webcams could be used by district staff to remotely snap multiple photos of anyone using the laptops in or outside the classroom without the subjects’ knowledge. Parents and students were not notified by district officials about the cameras. Although a few students may have had some knowledge about the webcams, it became public knowledge in November 2009 when a high school sophomore was confronted by a district official with photos of the student in the student’s home holding in his hands what the official thought to be drugs, but that the student maintains was candy.
On February 11, 2010, the student and his parents filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the school district invaded the student’s home and privacy. The lawsuit has prompted investigations by local authorities, the U.S. Attorney and the Federal Bureau of Investigation into what is being dubbed “webcamgate.” Federal agents have issued a subpoena to obtain the district’s records related to the use of the webcams and a finding that privacy laws were violated could support a class action lawsuit including other affected students and parents.
School district officials maintain that the cameras were being legitimately used for security purposes and that the webcams were activated to take photos only if a laptop was reported as lost, missing or stolen. In this case, the laptop was one of several “loaners” that students were allowed to take home and was not reported as lost, missing or stolen. On February 22, 2010, a federal court judge issued an unusual order in the case requiring school district officials to give the student’s attorneys six hours advance notice prior to discussing the webcams with other students and their parents. Apparently, the order is intended to allow the student's attorneys to monitor school district officials' statements about the student.