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Family: School used laptops to spy on them

PHILADELPHIA — A suburban Philadelphia school district used the webcams in school-issued laptops to spy on students at home, potentially catching them and their families in compromising situations, a family claims in a federal lawsuit.

Lower Merion School District officials said the laptops "contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops," and that the feature was deactivated Thursday. Angry students had already responded by putting tape on their laptop cameras and microphones.

Sophomore Tom Halpern described students as "pretty disgusted," and noted that his class recently read "1984," the George Orwell classic that coined the term "Big Brother."

"This is just bogus," said Halpern, 15, of Wynnewood, as he left Harriton High School on Thursday with his taped-up computer. "I just think it's really despicable that they have the ability to just watch me all the time."

The school district can activate the webcams without students' knowledge or permission, the suit said. Plaintiffs Michael and Holly Robbins suspect the cameras captured students and family members as they undressed and in other embarrassing situations, according to the suit.

A school district statement released late Thursday said the tracking feature would not be reactivated "without express written notification to all students and families."

"We can categorically state that we are and have always been committed to protecting the privacy of our students," said the spokesman, Doug Young.

The affluent district prides itself on its technology initiatives, which include giving Apple laptops to each of the approximately 2,300 students at its two high schools.

The Robbinses said they learned of the alleged webcam images when Lindy Matsko, an assistant principal at Harriton High School, told their son Blake that school officials thought he had engaged in improper behavior at home. The behavior was not specified in the suit.

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