Penn. school district hit with new Mac spying lawsuit

After settling with another student for $175,000 last year, Lower Merion says new suit 'solely motivated by monetary interests'

A former student at a suburban Philadelphia high school has sued his school district for allegedly spying on him and his family using a school-issued Mac laptop, according to court documents.

The Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa. was first sued in February 2010 by another student using similar charges. That case, dubbed "Spygate" in some media reports, was settled last October when Lower Merion agreed to pay Blake Robbins $175,000 and cover $425,000 in court costs.

On Monday, Joshua Levin, a 2009 graduate of Herriton High, charged the district with violating his civil rights and privacy by remotely activating the notebook's built-in camera to take photographs and screenshots.

Today, Lower Merion spokesman Doug Young called Levin's lawsuit "solely motivated by monetary interests and a complete waste of the taxpayer's dollars."

Last year, Lower Merion acknowledged it had activated cameras on the school-provided MacBook system to track lost or stolen laptops, but denied it was using them to spy on students.

Levin begged to differ.

According to his lawsuit, Lower Merion used his laptop to take more than 8,000 photographs and screenshots between September 2008 and March 2009.

A report commissioned by the district uncovered more than 30,000 photographs and another 27,000 screenshots taken when the tracking and security software was activated by district IT personnel. Last June, lawyers for Lower Merion made photos and screenshots available for viewing by the 76 affected students.

"Plaintiff opted to view the recovered images, and was shocked, humiliated and severely emotionally distressed at what he saw," Levin's lawsuit stated.

Levin said he had not known about his Mac's secret spying ability until he received a letter from Lower Merion in 2010 informing him that he could view the images.

"Plaintiff kept the laptop in his bedroom, as well as throughout his mother's household and his father's household," said Levin's lawsuit. "Plaintiff's younger brother noticed that the light in the camera would go off and on at odd times, wondering if the family was being 'spied on.' Plaintiff's mother dismissed this idea as absurd, as the notion that the school district was secretly monitoring and taking pictures of students was simply incomprehensible and beyond all rational belief."

Levin's complaint did not describe the nature of the photographs he said were snapped by his MacBook.

According to Young, Lower Merion tried to resolve the dispute with Levin without going to court.

"The District has repeatedly attempted to be fair and reasonable in this matter," Young said in an email reply to a request for comment. "Regrettably, the Plaintiff has flatly refused all efforts to achieve resolution through court-supervised mediation."

Young also said that Levin's laptop was one of six that had been reported stolen in 2008, and that it was eventually recovered by local police.

The district also settled with a second student, 2010 graduate Jalil Hasan, for $10,000 last year.

Levin's lawsuit requested unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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