Family Sues School for Webcam Spying, Uncovering Their Legal Woes

Web camEver wonder what kids are up to when they lock themselves in their room? Well, an upscale suburban Philadelphia school district knows the answer. One teenager and his parents have filed a class action lawsuit against the school for spying.

Blake Robbins, a 15-year-old sophomore at Harrington High School in the Lower Merion School District, says Assistant Vice Principal Lindy Matsko took advantage of an Internet security program installed on a school-issued laptop to monitor his activity at home. The administrator says she didn't monitor students or authorize others to do so, while the district acknowledges that it does have the capability and has since turned it off.

But guess what? The school has used it. And there's another twist to the story unraveling about the parents' other battles, including an unpaid $30,000 in electric and gas bills for their $986,000 home, and other debt closing in on half a million dollars.

The Feb. 11 initiated suit, which seeks class-action status, says Matsko on Nov. 11 referred to a laptop photo when telling this middle child of five that the school thought he was engaging in improper behavior. Robbins and his family have told reporters that an official mistook a piece of Mike & Ike candy for a pill and thought he was selling drugs, reported Fox News.

Lower Merion, an affluent district, issues Apple laptops to all 2,300 students at its two high schools. Only two employees in the technology department, not administrators, were authorized to activate the cameras, which captured still images but not sound, officials said.

The webcam feature, according to the school, was only to be used to find laptops that were reported lost or stolen. The district's Web site said 42 activations of the system resulted in the recovery of 18 computers, not 28 as district spokesman Doug Young had said earlier, reported Fox News. The school district also claims in a letter posted on its website that the system can only capture still images, not audio or video, reported boingboing.

There has been no word as to whether or not other users of the district laptops have just covered the lens with a small piece of opaque tape to be safe. Other schools throughout the nation, however, have shut down their programs too. On Monday, the McCracken County, Ky., school district began deleting software that allows access to Web cams and monitors usage on 2,170 laptops, reported the Paducah Sun.

The Robbins' lawsuit, downloadable at Craphound.com, says "the laptops at issue were routinely used by students and family members while at home, it is believed and therefore averred that many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various stages of dress or undress."

But speaking of getting caught with their pants down, the parents dirty laundry is being aired as a result of making it to the national spotlight. Robbins' parents, Michael, 52, and Holly, 47, were in hock to creditors, ranging from Uncle Sam to their former synagogue. And they had "regularly been stiffing Peco Energy for five years, breaking payment plan after payment plan," reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Insurance broker Michael Robbins, until recently, had earned about $150,000 per year, the Inquirer reported. "Our procedures," the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission spokesperson wrote in a Dec. 17 motion, "were not meant to allow customers living in $986,000 houses, with incomes in excess of $100,000 per year, to run up arrearages approaching $30,000."

Longtime Peco spokesman Michael Wood said this week that the family's debt was the largest household delinquency he could recall, except for one theft-of-services case.

In addition to the Peco debt, the Robbinses had been hit with numerous civil judgments in recent years totaling more than $365,000, the paper reported. The families unpaid debts range from $62,692 owed to the IRS to lesser debts of a few thousand to their dentist, their former synagogue's preschool, and a Montgomery County lawyer. Michael Robbins is also currently embroiled in a legal dispute with his former employer, Interstate Motor Carriers Agency Inc. of Freehold, N.J. In a federal lawsuit filed last year, Robbins contends that Interstate owes him about $5 million in commissions.

If the class action lawsuit doesn't payout and get the family out from under all of its debt, just maybe this family could instead find relief by embracing the webcam. Imagine: An Internet reality TV show shot entirely through the eyes of a network of webcams in their home and viewable exclusively on Hulu. That might just add weight to their pocketbooks.

Sheree R. Curry is an award-winning business journalist who resides in a Minneapolis suburb.

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