ACLU calls on Henrico Schools to change webcam policy

By Andy Jenks - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

HENRICO, VA (WWBT) - The ACLU is calling on Henrico Public Schools to revise its laptop policy in the wake of a Pennsylvania lawsuit alleging improper use of webcams. It's a story we first investigated in May of last year.

Henrico County Public Schools issue laptop computers to elementary and high school students. The computers have tiny web cams embedded in the screen. In some cases, those cameras can be turned on remotely by school administrators, without a person's knowledge.

In suburban Philadelphia, an assistant principal is under fire - accused of spying on a student with a school-issued webcam. The woman denies anything illegal, saying the school can only activate webcams if a laptop computer is reported stolen. It's the same policy for laptops issued by Henrico County Public Schools.

"We will only engage the cameras in a case where it's an investigation and Henrico Police is involved," said Lloyd Brown, Director of Technology for HCPS.

In May of 2009, NBC12 reported the theft of several laptops from Pinchbeck Elementary School. School officials used the police report number -not a warrant- to activate a camera which clearly revealed the suspect, who was arrested a week later, and eventually pled guilty. Now, the ACLU claims that could be an illegal invasion of one's privacy...even that, of a thief.

"Cameras on computers are no different than something like a wiretap. If you have to get a warrant to get a wiretap, to listen to someone phone, you obviously have to get a warrant to put a camera in their house," said Kent Willis of the ACLU of Virginia.

Henrico school leaders are assuring parents the laptops cannot be used for spying. Elementary school laptops don't go home with students, anyway. And that's where the technology stops.

"We have not written a program for the high schools to be initiated for the cameras to be activated," Brown said.

In Henrico, webcams on elementary laptops have been activated 50 times. Every case involved a stolen computer. Henrico school leaders do not immediately intend to change the policy.

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