04/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

School issued laptop: Good. Webcam spying: Very bad

It's an unbelievable story. A suburban Philadelphia school district is being sued in federal court for allegedly using webcams to spy on students and their families at home. On its website, the Lower Merion School District says that it was "one of the first school systems in the United States to provide laptop computers to all high school students."

The parents of student Blake J. Robbins are suing the district, the school board and the school superintendent for invasion of privacy for "indiscriminate use of ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District," according to the complaint* (PDF).

The laptops were issued to students through the use of state and federal grants as part of a "21st century learning environment" for the students. The laptops are Apple Macintosh's equipped with webcams. Students, according to a statement on the district's website "are free to utilize this feature for educational purposes."

On Thursday, the district issued a statement acknowledging that "the laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops, but that "this feature has been deactivated effective today."

The statement claims that because "laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property," the "security feature was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student."

Indeed the feature can be used remotely to take a picture of the person using the laptop. The district further said that " The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator's screen" but that the feature " has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."

According to a blog post on BoingBoing, "the issue came to light when the Robbins's child was disciplined for "improper behavior in his home" and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence."

The plaintiffs allege that the school district's actions were in violation of 18 U.S. Code 2701, "Unlawful Access to Stored Communications."

The Associated Press reported that the Robbins family "suspect the cameras captured students and family members as they undressed and in other embarrassing situations."

A good thing gone bad?

The irony here is that the school district was being very progressive in issuing laptops to students. Not only do school-issued laptops help reduce the digital divide by providing computer access to all students, they can greatly enhance students' educational experience by allowing teachers to more easily integrate the use of software and the Internet into class instruction. I applaud Lower Merion School District for being so progressive as to issue machines to students but, of course, these allegations -- if true -- are horrendous. While it makes sense for school officials to be able to track stolen machines, it would be incredibly wrong for them to use the tracking technology to spy on students. Even if, as district officials claim, the technology is only used to help track down lost or stolen machines, the mere ability of officials to peer into a students' homes is way behind acceptable. It was smart of the district to agree to stop the practice and it would be even smarter of them to remove any software that makes it possible to activate a webcam remotely without the knowledge and permission of the machine's user and his or her parents.

*The PDF of the complaint was downloaded from the blog America's Right. Although it appears genuine and its contents are consistent with news stories about the suit, I can not verify with certainty that it's an authentic copy of the complaint.