Webcam spying school settles with students, pays $1.2M in fees and damages

Jon sez, "Back in February Lower Merion School District found themselves in a world of uncomfortableness when they got outed for remotely spying on their own students. [ed: Not just remotely spying; the district mandated that students had to use school-issued laptops running secret spyware that covertly activated the webcam to take thousands of still photos of students and their families on and off campus (including sleeping and undressed students). The spyware was designed to run without displaying any sign that the camera had been activated.] Now they've settled. Two of the student's got a payout - one to the tune of $175k. But the real winner, of course, are the lawyers who're walking away with more than three quarters of the settlement. Also, it seems the only reason the School District decided to settle now was that their insurer came to the party and cover the school's legal fees - otherwise they'd still be slugging it out in court. Way to go, District."

On the plus side, the District has abandoned its use of spyware.

"A major impetus behind settling this matter now is the recent agreement by our insurance carrier, Graphic Arts, to cover more than $1.2M of the fees and costs associated with this litigation to date," Lower Merion School Board President David Ebby said in a statement.

"Although we would have valued the opportunity to finally share an important, untold story in the courtroom, we recognize that in this case, a lengthy, costly trial would benefit no one," he said. "It would have been an unfair distraction for our students and staff and it would have cost taxpayers additional dollars that are better devoted to education. We also wanted to be sensitive to the welfare of the student involved in the case, given the possible ramifications of what would have been a highly-publicized trial."

According to the suit, the district gave high school students computers as part of a technology initiative, but did not notify families that the laptops were equipped with Webcams that could be turned on remotely. The Robbins family alleged they did not learn of the capability until school officials accused their son Blake of "improper behavior in his home" and cited a photograph from the Webcam embedded in the laptop as evidence.

School District Settles Webcam Spying Litigation

Motion for Sanctions (PDF)


  1. It’s obscene that the lawyers should walk away with 3/4 of any settlement! Half the problem with litigation in the USA, and elsewhere for that matter is lawyer fees.

    I’m all for compensation for the work a lawyer does, but there really should be a cap on just how much a lawyer can collect of a settlement. If lawyers knew that his compensation would be capped at 12% perhaps fewer cases would clog the courts.

    1. The argument goes: that, even with the truly exorbitant legal fees they collect, the client is still markedly better than they were without council. This is particularly true of accidents with high medical fees. Although I’m not a particular proponent of this argument, in this case its easy to see that some of the peripheral plaintiffs benefited. Without counsel, or even with a different counsel, the discoverers of this violation could have settled out, with a non-disclosure agreement almost guaranteed, probably preventing these peripheral plaintiffs from ever discovering the breach.

    2. The problem with a cap is it will make it difficult for non-wealthy citizens to file lawsuits when they are wronged.
      The lawyer or firm had to make a bet based on the odds that they would get anything out of the lawsuit.
      The wealthy can always afford to self finance litigation, and the big class action payoffs is what induces lawyers to agree to build and pursue the case on spec.
      The big legal fees in cases like this is the cost of the attorney giving you his billable work time with no expectation that you will ever have to pay out of your own pocket win or loose. This is why if you have a good case you have a better chance of good representation in civil court than criminal court where you get nothing if you beat a bogus case.

    3. “If lawyers knew that his compensation would be capped at 12% perhaps fewer cases would clog the courts.”

      Um, isn’t the purpose of the courts to hear cases? It costs money to try cases. If a lawyer is charging way too much then it should hopefully be possible to find someone willing to charge less.


      1.2 million- that’ll teach ’em! Let Marion be an example to other districts who think about spying.

      If Molly Wei and Dharun Ravi fail to receive an adequate criminal punishment for their actions there is potential for a civil suit there, too. It won’t bring Tyler Clementi back but it might make other spy/pornographer roommates from Hell think twice before streaming.

  2. So they settled the civil suit against the school district. I’m guessing that the criminal trial is still ongoing?

  3. This whole story makes you wonder what kind of crackpots are running that board. What deranged minds could see any good in the idea in the first place, or come out with a statement that there is an “important, untold story” to share in the courtroom.

  4. if the students were photographed undressed, how are these people not in prison for child pornography?

  5. Like Shakespeare said:

    “The first thing we must do is kill all the lawyers”

    Still must be interesting to lose your soul and compassion when you take the bar exam (though some retain those things, they usually become public defenders or help the in legal aid places).

  6. How clueless do you have to be to accuse someone of nefarious behaviour in their own house, based on hidden camera evidence? These people are not blessed with high IQs, are they? The fact that they are supposedly educators is very frightening.

  7. This really annoys me. The kids don’t deserve a pay day. The school employees/officials in question deserve to go to prison. Nothing useful is coming out of this whole thing except some lawyers are getting employment.

  8. If the school captured images of undressed students with this technology, how is someone escaping child=porn related criminal charges? I don’t understand how teenagers sending pictures of their own bodies come up on charges, but not adults spying on teens using webcams.

    1. I think lots of people have a misunderstanding of what constitutes “child pornography” under U.S. federal law. Images of undressed minors do not, in and of themselves, constitute child porn. Under federal law, these images have to depict “a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct” in order to qualify as child porn. “Sexually explicit conduct” is defined as: “(i) sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex; (ii) bestiality; (iii) masturbation; (iv) sadistic or masochistic abuse; or (v) lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person” (Source)

      Also, federal law only makes it a crime to “knowingly” send, receive, or possess such images. If you accidentally stumble across such images, and immediately delete them or else contact the proper authorities without showing them to anyone else, then you can’t be charged under federal child porn laws. Here is a link to the chapter of the United States Code dealing with child pornography and other forms of sexual exploitation of children:

      1. Yes, there seems to be some knee-jerk prudery and puritanism afoot in the public mind about this particular subject.

        BEFORE an image of a child ( or children) can be termed “child porn”, there MUST be an element of salacity present in that image.

        Innocent images are innocent!

        Surprised cat is surprised!

        1. :-)

          Gotta love Potter Stewart. Not the brightest justice ever to sit on the Supreme Court; but the man did have a way with words.

      2. Knowing teenagers, there’s probably at least one picture that was taken when some kid was using the laptops for porn…

  9. I agree with tad604:
    “The school employees/officials in question deserve to go to prison.”

  10. Disappointing outcome. I still find it incredulous that the schools didn’t manage to cache at least one partial nude of at least one student.

  11. So everything is good now, the students got some money, and the school administrators have all been fired for gross negligence, right?


  12. This is all of course coming from the town that made it impossible for people to visit the Barnes Foundation, and then turned around and sued the museum when it was almost bankrupt and decided to move to another location to avoid the visitor restrictions.

    Do spying webcams belong in Lower Merion too??

  13. Who’s worse? The board members who think this kind of thing is a good idea, or the technology snake-oil peddlers who bring this stuff/”strategy” around? I’ll it was probably someone from the insurance company side, seeing as how willing they were to pony up the payout. I’m sick to death of companies coming up with utterly useless-yet-flashy technology (full-body scanners, WHICH DON’T WORK and ONLY PISS PEOPLE OFF for one) in the name of “security.” They’re as much to blame as the power mad bureaucrats who allocate funds and implement such nonsense.

  14. Umm, the article states that the whole thing is a bit less than 1.2 million.

    The settlement calls for $175,000 to be placed in a trust for Robbins, while a second student who sued, Jalil Hassan, will get $10,000. In addition, the students’ attorney, Mark Haltzman, will get $425,000 in legal fees—bringing the district’s tab to $610,000.

    The legal fees are still ridiculous though.

  15. Wait, N/M…read the rest. The insurance is covering BOTH sides legal fees. The school district’s defense cost just as much as the settlement? Wow, did THEY get raped by their lawyers.

  16. I’m still appalled at the idea of the school bothering them about “improper behavior in the home”… Granted, its the only way we found out about this mess, but WOW. School rules and authority should END as soon as the student walks off of the campus.

  17. The school has no defense. Simply put, they knowingly photographed students doing things outside of school grounds and therefore outside of their jurisdiction. There is no possible defense for it. Having the cameras having the option to remote- photograph? well the idea was to help locate them if stolen or lost (can’t they GPS tag them??) but since they clearly were not used this way then those who took the photos should have been fired right away, and next school board election should be a slam dunk for anyone opposing the incumbents: “my opponent thinks spying on your child in their bedroom is a good idea!”

  18. “Although we would have valued the opportunity to finally share an important, untold story in the courtroom, ”

    Who needs a courtroom? You’ve got the whole, wide internet, and all of boingboing is anxious to hear your untold story.


    That’s what I thought.

  19. To all those bitching about the legal costs:

    No one was forced to hire counsel (and further not the particular counsel hired.)

    Legal representation takes a lot of time to prepare. It therefore can be expensive. Some work on contingency; some bill hours. The client has the choice in whom they hire.

    The vast majority of lawyers are a) not rich and/or b) very hard working. Do you guys realize law school runs upwards of $150,000? Plus interest while you pay it off? And is non-dischargeable? And that most lawyers do not work for big firms making a lot of money? And those that do work 80 hour weeks?

    If you guys don’t like lawyers, don’t hire them. Good luck in court!

  20. For all you folks bashing the lawyers’ fees and calling for caps: just remember that this is how the ACLU, EFF and many other fine non-profits can continue to litigate difficult, lengthy or unpopular cases. Also remember that for some small firms, one contingency case that drags on longer than expected, or ends in a bad outcome can bankrupt the firm.

  21. @Anon #28 and DelicateFlower #30

    Good points, both of you. Based on exactly those points most people would come to the conclusion that The System is flawed.

    What’s your analysis?


  22. SO, while the ethics here are completely twisted, but the mention of a student’s picture being taken while undressing has me particularly disturbed. Shouldn’t this qualify as child pornography and make whomever decided to set up the computers like this, if not the whole district, pornographers? Sex offense, anyone?

  23. How is it possible to spy on a person
    without any authorization, getting into
    their life, their family life and they
    are been accused of doing inappropriate

    It is incredible how this kind of things
    happen and just get ignore because it
    would be very expensive and unnecessary.

    It is unbelievable how people just put
    their nose where it doesn’t belong, and
    the lives of other people without
    consequences and they think that whit
    money they can fix everything and that
    everybody will not remember what has
    happen after their lives has been
    exposed to other people.

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