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February 23, 2010

Pennsylvania school invading students' home privacy

In yet another school-based outrage, Harriton High School (a school in Philadelphia) officials are in a lot of hot water right now.  I'm hoping that it reaches the boiling point soon, as I know I'm boiling.

It seems that the laptops that the school had given them and 2300 of their classmates had a function that they weren't aware of:  the webcam on the computers could be turned on remotely by school district officials, in order to spy on them.  According to Fox News:

"Blake Robbins and his 18-year-old sister both attend Harriton High School and were among the 2,300 students in the district to receive the Apple laptops. All students and their parents had to sign a "memorandum of understanding" to take the laptops home with wording that explained the rules and regulations that came along with the computers. The paperwork did not include the disclosure that the school district had the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcams at any time, without student's permission.

Last November, Blake Robbins was called to the office by the vice principal to talk about what she called his "improper behavior" at home. Vice Principal Lindy Matsko allegedly cited as evidence a photograph taken with the computer's webcam that had been activated in Blake's bedroom. Robbins claims that the Matsko accused him of selling drugs when she saw him holding up what she believed to be pills. The 15-year-old says he was simply holding his favorite candy, "Mike And Ikes," which are small oblong, chewy jelly beans."
So let me get this straight.  These idiotic school administrators seem to think that it's ok to invade the students' homes (even if it is through a remote webcam) and try to catch them doing something wrong?  Thank heavens it was only a "drug deal!"  I can't imagine the horrible result if Robbins had been waving a rival school's flag, cheering them on as he was listening to them play football on the radio.  Bring out the boiling oil!

It just boggles my mind that these administrators could actually think that there is nothing wrong with this!  It's bad enough that they would come up with this idea in the first place, but then to do it secretly, without even the parents knowing, is just over the top.  Even the police need a warrant to do something like this, and these people think they have the authority to do it?

But maybe it's not as bad as I make it out to be?  Here's their "excuse":

"School district officials say the only time they ever turn on the webcams is when one of the school-issued laptops have been reported lost, stolen or missing, so that they can try to track them down. They concede that the wording in the laptop policy was not sufficient, and did not explain the security feature, but insist that they never spied on students. Lower Merion officials say that they turned the cameras on 42 times in the past 14 months, which helped them recover 28 missing laptops."

Oh, so that makes it all right then.

OF COURSE IT DOESN'T!  First, how do they explain the incident that has brought this to light in the first place?  It doesn't appear that Robbins' laptop was reported lost, so why was it activated?  And secondly, forgive me if I don't have enough trust in human nature to think that *somebody* won't turn them on "just to see what's happening."  And, you know, hopefully discover that the 18-year-old girl just might happen to be changing in front of the laptop.  Or just to see what somebody's room is like.  Or whatever.

The point being, I could see myself having that urge, though I'm responsible enough to fight it.  Some people aren't.  It doesn't matter if it's never happened.  The fact that it could happen is reason enough not to do it.

If they must have a way to track the computers in case they're lost, why not a tracking beacon of some kind?  I don't necessarily like that idea that much, but as long as it's fully disclosed to the students and parents that it's there, it wouldn't be that bad.

However, their rationale for having this ability brings to mind some funny possibilities.

Official 1: "Laptop THX 1138 has been reported missing.  Turn on the camera"
Official 2: "Damn, she's hot!  And she's blowing kisses at the laptop.  Now she's...whoa, are those fake?"
Official 1: "We'd better report this!"
Official 2: "Nah, let's wait and see if she gives us any sign of where this is.  Oh baby...."

Thankfully, a federal civil rights lawsuit has been filed and the FBI is getting involved to see if any wiretap laws have been broken.  I hope every administrator involved in this decision gets fired.  Even if there's nothing seedy going on, they should be gone for such extremely poor judgment, if nothing else.

(Hat tip: Hot Air)

Randy Cassingham, of "This is True" fame, has an excellent blog post about this incident and how it stems from the "Zero Tolerance" mindset that I blogged about a couple of weeks ago.

Update (4/19/10): According to Fox News Boston, 56,000 images were taken of students, though thankfully "He says none of the images appears inappropriate."

Thank heavens for small favours!!!!

Update (11/9/10): The school has settled.


  1. I'm watching this story on the news right now lol. But wow really?!?! What business is it of the school's what kids are doing outside of school premises? I don't buy their excuse either.

  2. You and me both, Anahid. You're thinking along the same lines as I am.

    I knew there was something I liked about you. :)


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