There’s been quite a story growing in suburban Philadelphia, PA, which I’ve been following with great interest. One of the wealthier school districts bought Apple laptops (don’t get me started) for use by high school students. They charged each family a small insurance fee to use them at home. Interestingly, they also set up a “tracking” system that allowed school officials to remotely operate the laptop video cameras as well as take screen shots, sending the images back to their server. Neither the parents or students were informed of this “feature”. Set off any alarm bells yet?
The IT staff thought the system was great. They even demoed it by spying on a class in session by activating a laptop camera. Here were their thoughts (LMSD = Lower Merion School District):
Back at district offices, the Robbins motion says, employees with access to the images marveled at the tracking software. It was like a window into “a little LMSD soap opera,” a staffer is quoted as saying in an e-mail to Carol Cafiero, the administrator running the program.
“I know, I love it,” she is quoted as having replied.
Someone should have seen what was coming next, but apparently it was more fun than could be contained.
Then came the inevitable. A school official called a student into her office and confronted him with a photo taken in his bedroom through his laptop. To her, it looked like the student was using drugs. In fact, he was eating a popular candy. However, the cat was out of the bag. The school district had just acknowledged that it activated the laptop cameras in a student’s home and bedroom. Of course, the family sued.
And it gets better. The Montgomery County district attorney and the FBI became involved. All along, the school district insisted that they did nothing wrong, other than not notifying the parents about the tracking system. Some students reacted by taping over the camera lens. The district disabled the “tracking” system, while insisting that it was only ever used to track lost and potentially stolen laptops. In fact, they said, the system had only been used a handful of times. As expected, a war of legal posturing ensued.
This week, more bombshells dropped. First, the district’s IT coordinator took the 5th Amendment and tried to quash a subpoena to search her home computer. Given her comments quoted above, I wasn’t terribly surprised. But then it was revealed that rather than taking a handful of pictures, the district took thousands of images of multiple students, including of the initial student sleeping in his bed. From the story at Philly.com:
In the filing, the Penn Valley family claims the district’s records show that the controversial tracking system captured more than 400 photos and screen images from 15-year-old Blake Robbins’ school-issued laptop during two weeks last fall, and that “thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes.”
Robbins, a sophomore at Harriton High School, and his parents, Michael and Holly Robbins, contend e-mails turned over to them by the district suggest Cafiero “may be a voyeur” who might have viewed some of the photos on her home computer.
Well, isn’t that just dandy. Is your skin crawling yet? I certainly hope so.
There’s more fodder here than I have time to comment upon. As IT security departments get more power, the entities which employ them find themselves clueless to supervise them properly. That’s just a failure of leadership as well as a recipe for disaster. Leaders need to do some basic research that’s required to oversee what’s happening in their organizations, especially the IT department. I know that CIOs and equivalents are hired with some degree of trust and expectations of integrity, but absolute power corrupts absolutely. Everyone needs accountability.
Second, parents need to control what comes into their homes. Yes, that means putting down the remote and doing some research. Google and Yahoo are your friends. Learn how to use them. You learned how to drive, eh? Suck it up and do your job.
As information and surveillance technology become more prevalent, it becomes even more important to say informed. As Fox Mulder used to say, “Trust no one.” Some have opined that privacy has become a relic of an industrial past. I respectfully disagree. With proper safeguards and proactive research, one can contain the intrusions and maintain a large measure of their privacy.
The Lower Merion School District story will continue for some time. I will be tracking it closely and post periodic updates. Whatever the outcome, this situation comes as a warning to all. Don’t miss it!