Posted by: reformedmusings | May 8, 2010

Lower Merion School District’s Lawyer’s Report

The report of the school district-hired law firm on their webcamgate scandal released on May 3. Philly.com reported on it here and here. You can download the entire report, including appendices, from LMSD’s website. The reports have been redacted, ostensibly to protect students’ privacy. However, L3’s report in particular have been redacted in areas unrelated to students’ identities. In at least a few cases, L3 or the law firm that hired them seems to be hiding pertinent information bearing on the case.

Keep in mind that although LMSD keeps calling this investigation independent, the investing law firm was hired by LMSD to defend them against the civil rights lawsuit resulting from their taking surreptitious pictures of students and families in their own homes. There’s nothing independent about these reports. L3’s report confidentiality statement at the beginning of their report clearly says that it is intended for LMSD’s lawyers. Keep this core fact, which LMSD and its supporters continually downplay, in mind as you read the documents. The 56,000 recovered photos may not be the only ones extant, but we won’t find that out from the law firm hired by the district to defend them. They’re just in the role of paid mercenaries presumably telling us what the school district wants them to tell us. We won’t get the full story until the plaintiffs and their lawyers gain access to all the hardware in the course of discovery for their civil rights lawsuit.

As you’d expect, the reports aren’t complementary of the LMSD. However, neither do they lay significant blame at the LMSD’s leadership’s feet. The Information Systems (IS) administrator who bought and ordered installed the tracking system on all the laptops holds significant responsibility. The report seems to specially target her as the bottom line problem. She offers a weak version of the Nuremberg Defense. The LMSD leadership, on the other hand, offers the ignorance defense. I call it a failure of leadership across the board – in particular a failure to make informed decisions and to hold all involved accountable, including themselves.

Almost all of the key players claim that they couldn’t see this gross violation of trust and privacy coming. Bull. A student intern raised the issue as the LMSD deployed their spy system. Here’s the email chain from LMSD’s hire gun’s report:

August 2008 e-mails regarding privacy concerns raised by a student intern: On August 11, 2008, shortly before the rollout of the One-to-One program at HHS, an HHS student who had been a student intern in the IS Department e-mailed Ms. DiMedio with the subject line “1:1 concern (Important).” He wrote that he had recently learned of the District’s purchase of LANrev and, describing his discovery of its ability to remotely manage computers while they are outside LMSD’s network as “something startling,” stated:

I would not find this a problem if students were informed that this was possible, for privacy’s sake. However, what was appalling was that not only did the District not inform parents and students of this fact . . . .

He further wrote:

[W]hile you may feel that you can say that this access will not be abused, I feel that this is not enough to ensure the integrity of students and that even if it was no one would have anyway of knowing (especially end users). I feel it would be best that students and parents are informed of this before they receive their computers. And while this only slightly sways my opinion on 1:1, i could see not informing parents and students of this fact causing a huge uproar.

Ms. DiMedio responded seven minutes later:

I am not sure what you’ve found is correct. What I do know for absolute certainty is that there is absolutely no way that the District Tech people are going to monitor students at home. There is no plan, no staff, no desire and I believe no technical way to do that. I will definitely confirm the technical piece. If we are going to monitor student use at home, we would have stated so. Think about it—why would we do that? There is no purpose. We are not a police state. Lower Merion is one of the few school districts that only filters what we are required by federal law. There is no way that I would approve or advocate for the monitoring of students at home.

I suggest you take a breath and relax.

“Take a breath and relax” indeed. I can hardly believe such ignorance from someone hired to oversee information services. Somehow the term “incompetence” doesn’t go nearly far enough to describe Ms. DiMedio. That intern understood more about the implications of modern information technology that the LMSD IS administrator. Even Apple, of whom I’m no fan, advised caution:

On May 14, 2008, an Apple employee suggested in an e-mail to Ms. DiMedio that she should discuss with the District solicitor “guidelines for Internet connectivity with school district owned computers when they are taken home”:

You will need to ensure that your . . .policy covers the issue and also makes it clear that content placed onto the hard drive is the property of the district and can be examined by district personnel. You just want to be clear on where your responsibility begins and ends with regard to Internet access at home.

Worse, now Ms. DiMedio’s lawyer is claiming that the LMSD is “throwing her under the bus.” No kidding. That certainly appears to be true, but she laid down on the street to make it possible! Through her incompetence (again too light a word), she opened the LMSD to a multi-million dollar law suit. She deserves whatever she gets.

On the other side, the district has no basis for claiming anything other than gross negligence of leadership. They are every bit as liable for the outcome as their errant former IS administrator. Competent leadership asks probing questions when sending any kind of IT equipment into people’s homes. Ignorance IS a failure of leadership.

Almost worse, there are still parents that place their financial concerns ahead of holding the LMSD financially accountable. Where there’s no pain, there’s no gain. I posted on this earlier, and nothing has changed with the release of the law firm’s report. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m no fan of tort lawyers, but in this situation the district cannot be permitted to walk away freely without serious consequences that will give any future morons who run it serious pause before putting students’ and families’ privacy at open risk. Let’s not forget what happened:

…the system snapped more than 50,000 images, including photos of students, their families and programs running on their laptop screens.

Let’s also not forget that this all came to light when an assistant principle used at least one of those pictures to confront a student about something he was do in his home. She thought that he was doing drugs. He was only eating candy, but she was apparently high on the power of the ultimate government surveillance (also known as voyeurism).

I’ll close this post by quoting verbatim from a previous post on the price of complacency because it bears continual repeating IMNSHO:

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.

I would have told LMSD that for half the price they paid Virginia DiMedio to set them up for a huge fall. In the end, amateurs tend to be way more expensive that professionals.

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Responses

  1. […] 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 student […]


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