Big Bro Broken: Webcam Spying Suit Settles

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on October 12, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Have you been wondering what has been going on in the wonderful world of the Lower Merion School District webcam spying suit? Surely you remember the lawsuit brought by high school student Blake Robbins and his parents, after they discovered their high school had the ability to spy on Blake and every other student via webcams mounted on the school issued laptops. The spying came to light when a vice principal at Blake's school accused him of "improper behavior" and confronted him with a picture of him snapped by the webcam. Months later, it was revealed that the drug use the school believed was shown, was actually Blake popping Mike n' Ike candies during a study session.

The suit triggered by candy use, and which brought down an FBI investigation and discussions of a change in federal law, has finally settled, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Blake Robbins will receive $175,000 in trust. An additional suit by student Jalil Hasan will settle for $10,000. The Robbins' attorney will receive $425,000 in fees and costs. The insurance company, who also filed suit against the school district in an attempt to deny coverage, will end up paying a total of $1.2 million of the fees, costs and damage awards.

At the heart of this suit was the invasion of privacy claim. During the investigation, it was discovered that, although the webcams were installed to help recover lost or stolen computers, pictures were snapped from laptops not reported missing and sometimes at the rate of one every 15 minutes, far in excess of what would be needed to actually recover a stolen computer. According to the Inquirer, the report following the investigation found no proof that employees intentionally spied on students, but said that the system suffered from poor planning and lax oversight.

So what can we take away from this case, other than the fact the Blake Robbins no longer has to worry about paying for college? First, a new awareness that as usual, the law needs to catch up to new technology. During the case, Pennsylvania Senator Alan Specter pushed for changes in the Federal Wiretap Act due to holes discovered in the law thanks to the webcam spying suit.

Second, if it looks and tastes like an invasion of privacy, it probably is. It is a still unanswered question as to what the advice (if any, if ignored) of the school district's general counsel was regarding the implementation of such a program. Although the school district said many times the purpose was never to spy on students, and the webcams were never used with that intent, those pictures snapped of Blake Robbins sleeping were just a bit disturbing.

But sleep well, Lower Merion, Pennsylvania and all other schools whose superintendents have been paying attention. The school district no longer uses the webcam system. And with any luck, other teachers and administrators will get the lesson from this 8-month long, $1.2 million, teachable moment.

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