In Pennsylvania, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI are investigating allegations that a school district activated web cams on computers issued to students, according to a Feb. 22 statement from the Department of Justice.

News of the case prompted a brief discussion of laptop privacy at a meeting of the Maine School Administrative District 40 School Board on Feb. 25.

The Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania has been accused of remotely turning on the audio and video input on school-issued MacBooks. Student Blake J. Robbins and his parents filed a lawsuit in a Pennsylvania district court on Feb. 11 against the Lower Merion School District, the board of directors of the school and the superintendent.

“As the laptops at issue were routinely used by students and family members while at home, it is believed … that many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors and their parents and friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, various states of dress or undress,” the lawsuit states.

In Maine, the school-issued computers do not include the ability to remotely activate the camera, according to an e-mail from Jeff Mao, the Education Department’s learning technology policy director.

That e-mail, and a letter from the technology director of SAD 40, were presented at the Feb. 25 school board meeting at the Prescott Memorial School in Washington.

“Last week, a school system in Pennsylvania was in the news because it has installed software that allows them to remotely activate the iSight camera that is built into the Apple MacBook,” wrote SAD 40 Technology Director Linda Trenholm. “These computers are like the ones issued to our students … However, the computers issued to your students do not include the functionality to remotely activate the camera.”

SAD 40 Superintendent Francis Boynton said the district has some ability to monitor computer use, but it can’t activate a student’s computer.

“Our computers don’t have that feature on them. Maine computers can’t do that,” Boynton said at the school board meeting.

In his lawsuit, Robbins said the Pennsylvania school district and administrators “have been spying on the activities” of Robbins and other students included in the class action lawsuit. He said the remote activation was “accomplished without the knowledge or consent” of the students.

Robbins is a student at Harriton High School in Rosemont, Pa. According to the lawsuit, he learned of the web cam use on Nov. 11, 2009, when an assistant principal accused him of “improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the web cam embedded in [his] personal laptop issued by the school district.”