Last night, the Lower Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia released its long awaited 69-page report into the allegations that some of its IS staff members were 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. You can get up to speed on the back story here and here.
As described in this Philadelphia Inquirerarticle today, the report's conclusions were that the school district had: "Inconsistent policies. Shoddy record-keeping. Misstep after misstep. 'Overzealous' use of technology 'without any apparent regard for privacy considerations.' "
Specifically, the report says that the "leaders and several members of the IS Department were not forthcoming with the Board, administrators, and students" about how the webcams would be used, and demonstrated an unwillingness "to let anyone outside of the IS Department know about" it.
Gee, a secretive IS staff that followed its own rules. Never encountered that ever before.
That said, the report also found that there appeared to be no deliberate spying on students or voyeurism as was alleged by some. Instead, the report said, it was just a "Wild West IS Department" operating in a school district that failed "to implement policies, procedures and recordkeeping requirements" on the use of the webcams.
The Inquirer article says that while many of the parents who attended the school district meeting last night that discussed the report's findings agreed with the report's conclusion, others disagreed, citing that thousands of webcam pictures were taken without consent and for no apparently good reason other than they were taken by mistake. In at least two cases, for example, the report says that the wrong student webcams were turned on because of misspellings.
The Inquirer article also says that the report states that there are "conflicting accounts from district employees, gaps in data, and said investigators were still gathering evidence as recently as Sunday."
Taking a quick glance through the report myself, it does seem that the report was schedule driven versus "follow the facts" driven. It doesn't look like a whitewash as much as it just looks incomplete. The report also says that because of the various legal investigations going on, many of the participants either were not or did not want to be interviewed, which may also explain it.
The report concluded with a series of recommendations which basically state that new policies governing the use of student computers be developed; an alternative to webcams should be used if possible to track lost, stolen or missing laptops; and that everyone should receive privacy training.
A lawyer for the family which filed a lawsuit against the school district for spying said in an AP story that he and his clients were "thankful that we've been vindicated" but also added that the story had not yet been fully told.
So, stay tuned for more to come. The federal investigation into the incident has not been completed yet, nor has the family dropped its lawsuit against the school district.
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.