Friday, April 16, 2010

High School Lap-Top Surveillance Revisited

During Winter Term, we talked a number of times about the situation at Harriton High School in the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania.

A student, Blake Robbins, and his parents have sued the district for illegal surveillance using the web-cam on the student's school issued laptop.

Initially the school district was indignant and insisted that, despite the fact that they had never told anyone that they had the capability of spying on students (and their families) using the laptop webcams, the webcams were only activated under certain very clearly delineated circumstances.

As is often the situation in legal cases, things are moving very slowly. A few weeks ago, there was news that the chief tech administrator for the school district was refusing to honor a court subpoena to appear and answer questions about the case.

The judge ordered the tech administrator, Carol Cafiero, to appear and she pleaded the fifth to every question. In other words, she declined to answer any questions in order to avoid incriminating herself.

The latest news now is that there appear to be hundreds if not thousands of pictures of students from Harriton High School that were taken with the laptop webcams. And not just pictures either - the laptops also captured text messages that students were sending back and forth to each other.

In e-mails made public this week a staff member at the high school is quoted as saying to Cafiero, the tech administrator, that reading the students' text messages was like:
"a little LMSD soap opera,"
[note: LMSD=Lower Merion School District]

to which Cafiero replied:
"I know, I love it,"
The school district website now has a notice that acknowledges that there are thousands of pictures of students that were taken with the laptop webcams:
A substantial number of webcam photos have been recovered in the investigation. We have proposed a process to Judge DuBois whereby each family of a student whose image appears in any such photos will be notified and given the opportunity to view such photographs...

Also, the plaintiffs' Motion suggests that the LANrev tracking feature may have been used for the purposes of "spying" on students. While we deeply regret the mistakes and misguided actions that have led us to this situation, at this late stage of the investigation we are not aware of any evidence that District employees used any LANrev webcam photographs or screenshots for such inappropriate purposes.

This is quite a different stance from the school district's initial claims that activation of the webcams happened in a very limited number of instances and only in certain specific circumstances:
Starting in 2008, the district used a remote control program to snap pictures - but only, they said, when a laptop was reported lost, missing or stolen. This feature was activated 42 times this school year, school officials said.
There seems to be some discrepancy between only using the webcam 42 times when a laptop is reported lost, missing or stolen and the thousands of pictures and text messages that appear to have swept up by the school district.
It will be interesting to see if and how this issue is resolved.

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