Pennsylvania School Accused of Cyberspying on Students

A Philadelphia-area school district finds itself under scrutiny after remotely activating a MacBook Web cam and capturing a young stude

nt engaging in "improper behavior at home." The student was confronted by a Harrington High School official and shown photographs of his actions. These photographs set off privacy alarms and have led to a class-action lawsuit alleging that the school district has been spying on its students in their homes.

Christopher McGinley, the superintendent of Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, released a statement yesterday admitting the MacBook cameras could be remotely activated without the user's knowledge. McGinley claimed the remote camera activation was meant as a theft-prevention measure. "The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever," McGinley said.

In a letter on the Lower Merton School District's Web site, McGinley offers the draft of a revised plan addressing security concerns, promising:

  • Immediate disabling of the security-tracking program.
  • A thorough review of the existing policies for student laptop use.
  • A review of security procedures to help safeguard the protection of privacy, including a review of the instances in which the security software was activated. We want to ensure that any affected students and families are made aware of the outcome of laptop recovery investigations.
  • A review of any other technology areas in which the intersection of privacy and security may come into play.

"We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families," McGinley added.

But "inconvenience" may be too soft a word. If the photographs of the young boy in question are of a sexual nature, Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District (PA) et al could turn into a case of child pornography.

The MacBooks were distributed to all 2300 students in the Lower Merton School District, much like a similar program enacted in Maine. The shame that could result if this explosive incident is true could damage the school's 1:1 laptop donation project and possibly sully the project's reputation nationwide.

Needless to say, this is a serious case. Many measures could've been implemented to avoid such a situation. ZDNet describes a few, including respecting a student's privacy when he or she is at home and informing parents of the remote control feature. Waivers should've been signed, school boards should've held meetings -- with so many cautionary measures to abide by, it's a mystery why this school district supposedly chose to ignore them all.

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