Posted by: reformedmusings | April 29, 2010

Lower Merion School District – The price of complacency

Interesting developments in the case. First, the original family that sued LMSD over privacy violations has spoken out. Some ignorant commenters under the news stories have trashed the family, their financial status, and their motives in the suit. Blaming victims seems a popular pastime these days. They charged that the family was just out for the money. These ignorant critics are now eating crow since more of the scope of LMSD’s misconduct has come to light. Instead of a few pictures of one student, it turned out that over 56,000 pictures were taken of multiple student in their homes and bedrooms. I’ve written on that previously. The mother of the original child said:

“I tried to communicate with the school prior to filing the lawsuit,” Robbins said Sunday during an interview at her Penn Valley home, her hand clasped around her husband’s. “I didn’t want to file the lawsuit; I didn’t want to go through that.”

In the family’s first extensive newspaper interview, Robbins said that she just wanted to find out why Harriton High School officials were surreptitiously photographing her son, Blake, with the webcam on his Apple MacBook. And she wanted it to stop. But she says that she couldn’t get any answers.

“Nobody called me back,” she said. “Nobody responded to me.”

It’s no wonder why. The district and its information services folks didn’t want the full extent of their misconduct to come to light. The lawsuit, however reluctantly filed, has dragged those dirty secrets into the disinfecting sunlight. The parents of every single LMSD student should be eternally grateful to the original family. But, as I’ve noted previously and is nicely summarized in this article (a must read summary of the case to date), some seem more concerned with their wallets than their children’s privacy and holding LMSD officials accountable. It’s a sick world out there. But some parents really do get it:

“The whole tide is turning right now,” said Chuck Barsh, a life-insurance salesman whose son is a sophomore at Lower Merion High. “The school district’s intent wasn’t to look at kids half naked in their bedrooms, but they set up a system where that’s exactly what happened!”

“Regardless of the debate over the Robbinses’ motivation, if they didn’t have the chutzpah they did, this would have never come out,” said Carla Zambelli, a Lower Merion resident and community activist.

We also have a window into the price to LMSD for this fiasco – $550,000 so far for lawyers and specialists. And it ain’t over yet, not by any stretch. The FBI and county attorney general are still investigating, and the lawsuit hasn’t been settled yet. That’s what happens when you abdicate your leadership responsibilities and trust the wrong people.

In the linked article about the cost, the LMSD calls the investigation to date “independent”. They need to study their basic vocabulary. An independent investigation means that is conducted by a disinterested third party. LMSD is paying for the lawyers and experts conducting the investigation so far, so those lawyers and experts are beholden to the district. They are not independent. As bad as it looks for the district now, keep in mind that all the pertinent details about the pictures and webcam use have come from experts paid for by the school district. I doubt that we have learned the full extent of the misconduct yet. That won’t happen until an outside agency examines the district’s computers and records.

Think that sounds paranoid? In order to keep our perspective on just how egregious the school district’s conduct has been, let’s remember how this all initially came to light. An assistant principal falsely accused a child of drug use using a picture surreptitiously taken in the child’s bedroom by the school district:

The suit says that in November, assistant principal Lynn Matsko called in sophomore Blake Robbins and told him that he had “engaged in improper behavior in his home,” and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam in his school-issued laptop.

Matsko later told Robbins’ father, Michael, that the district “could remotely activate the webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop . . . at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam” without the knowledge or approval of the laptop’s users, the suit says.

That’s what happens when you trust the government without being vigilant and putting measures in place to hold the government accountable. I’m no fan of the ACLU, the they got this one right:

“This is what happens when no one is paying attention to how much access the government has to your private life,” said ACLU staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper.

That’s an understatement. And this incident pales in comparison to Obamacare. Even the school district seems to be finally getting it:

District officials have acknowledged “serious mistakes” with the laptop security system.

The program secretly captured more than 56,000 photos and screen shots from students’ computers in less than two years, mostly from machines that had been reported lost or stolen.

But at least 12,000 of those images were collected because technicians failed or forgot to turn off cameras even after students had found their laptops, district investigators have found. In those instances, Web cams shot and stored a new photo every 15 minutes if a laptop was running.

Investigators have been unable to determine why technicians turned on the system in another dozen or so cases.

Unable to determine why? But the district said they NEVER turned on the webcams except when looking for lost or stolen laptops. The lies just pile up. The bottom line from LMSD:

Ebby, the school board president, said Tuesday night that he expected at least $200,000 more in legal bills to pile up from the controversy.

“Big money,” he said. “It’s a big, big horrible error in judgment.”

No kidding.

Remember Fox Mulder’s watchword and computer password from the X-Files: “Trust no one.” Especially an unaccountable government entity.

Information technology advances have improved and enhanced our daily lives in ways unimaginable just decades ago. But with those advances comes serious responsibilities to understand and properly manage the implications, especially privacy impacts. I am covering the events in LMSD on this humble blog specifically to illustrate in microcosm the horrible outcomes possible as a result of complacency, failures to lead responsibly, and to hold leaders and “experts” accountable. Semper Vigilans must be more than just the Civil Air Patrol‘s motto. It’s the price of freedom, and the obligation of the free.



  1. […] close this post by quoting verbatim from a previous post on the price of complacency because it bears continual repeating […]

  2. […] sued the district, and the FBI investigated the situation. More on this sick situation here, here, here, here. All told, the district took some 56,000 photos with the laptops, including at least one […]


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