A few months back, I blogged about a family filing a federal lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia alleging that it was spying on students and their families through school-issued Apple laptops. The school had given all 2,300 students at its two high schools the laptops which come with a webcam as part of a technology/education initiative.
Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer (which has extensive coverage of the case) reported that the family filed another motion alleging that "thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes." The family's lawyer further alleges that some of the school district employees may have been engaged in voyeurism. The school district vehemently denies that was the case at all.
This week, the school district did admit that it activated the webcams some 146 times over the past two years, the Inquirer reported. Over that time, over 56,000 pictures were captured, but only when the school district thought that the laptops were stolen or lost. It said that in the family's case, they hadn't paid the $55 dollar insurance fee that allowed the laptop to be brought home.
Furthermore, the school district said that 38,000 of the photos snapped were related to 6 laptops reported stolen from a locker room that were eventually recovered by police.
However, in at least five cases, the laptops continued to take pictures even after laptops thought to be lost were found and reported as such. In this case, over 13,000 photos were taken that shouldn't have been.
The Philadelphia Inquirer quotes the school district's lawyer as saying that in those cases, "This is where a significant mistake has been made... Clearly those trackings should have been turned off earlier... The taking of these pictures without student consent in their homes was obviously wrong."
In related news, a judge has ordered that access to all photos that the school district may have captured be restricted from the public. The school district also says that it will allow parents of students who have had their webcams turned on to see what was captured, while US Attorney Michael Levy, who said earlier that he was going to look into the situation to see if federal wiretap laws were violated, asked the judge to let the FBI review the photos.
There was an AP story yesterday reporting that the school district's insurance company is now refusing to cover the district's legal costs since the costs are not covered under its personal injury policy.
The school district's investigation into the situation is expected to conclude in early May. The resulting fallout from it may take much longer to settle.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.