Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Big Brother

The Lower Merion School District outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania distributed 1,800 laptops to students in order to ensure that socio-economic status did not hinder anyone’s access to technology. All the child’s parents had to do was sign an “acceptable use policy” and agree to insure the laptop if it was used outside the confines of the school building.
 The cause was noble, but the execution was poor as the district is now a defendant in a class action lawsuit and the subject of an FBI investigation. How did this come about?
It turns out that the laptops were equipped with a built-in webcam that could be activated and accessed remotely anytime the student was on the Internet.  This feature was allegedly activated while a 15 year old male student was at home and at least one still image was clandestinely obtained by the school system. Then, on November 11, 2009 the young man was approached at school by a female assistant principle who accused him of participating in "improper behavior” in his home and presented him with a still image as proof of this behavior. The boy reported the incident to his parents, who filed a lawsuit against the school district, its board of directors, and the superintendent for unlawfully using the webcam to spy on students in their homes.
The system has issued a statement that "At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security-tracking software.” They insist that only a handful of IT personnel have that ability and that the feature is only used to recover stolen or missing laptops. The district claims that in the current school year 42 laptops have been reported missing, stolen, or misplaced. In each instance the school claims that it accessed the cameras and in 18 cases they were successful at locating the missing device.
This story is disturbing on so many levels:
1.       If the assistant principle did indeed have a photo of the student obtained from the camera, she obviously has some access to the feature even if it is indirectly.
2.       There is no indication that the young man’s laptop was ever reported missing or stolen and even if it was, the mandatory insurance on the laptop would cover the replacement cost to begin with.
3.       The agreement signed by the parents simply stated that the school system had the ability to “monitor the hardware”, not the people using it. The webcam is never mentioned.
As someone who works in information technology, I can assure you that there are more effective and less controversial ways to keep track of laptops (LoJack immediately comes to mind) than spying on people in their homes via webcam. Personally I would like to know how the webcam helped them track down a stolen laptop. Did they recognize the Lady GaGa poster on the wall? Did the leather sectional look familiar? Was the perpetrator’s bone structure analyzed by the audio / video club?
The ability to remotely photograph someone in their home is a powerful temptation (I wonder what the cheerleading squad is doing tonight…) and should never be placed in the hands of a group of people with more than a passive familiarity with uploading videos to YouTube. Unless the young man was documented strangling a classmate with piano wire or watching a Jersey Shore marathon, I cannot imagine something heinous enough to justify such a gross invasion of privacy.
The school system has assured all of the parents that the “feature” has been disabled and no longer poses a threat to student’s privacy. In the meantime be on the lookout for

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