Lower Merion webcam scandal: School officials didn't mean to spy

Lower Merion webcam scandal: School officials didn't mean to spy

Summary: A report found no evidence that officials with the Lower Merion School District intended to spy on students when they remotely activated the webcams on those machines.


The school district in Pennsylvania that found itself in a legal and public relations nightmare for reportedly activating the webcams of school-issued computers and snapping images of students - and their families - in their homes was not engaged in any spying tactics, according to a report conducted by lawyers hired by the district.

In a nutshell, that means that school administrators with the Lower Merion School District meant no harm when they snapped some 30,000 webcam images and another 27,000 screenshot images. Instead, the district and school administrators were careless and failed to use good judgement surrounding the TheftTrack feature built into the remote access program on these laptops. From the report:

...the collection of images from laptops while they were in the possession of students resulted from the District’s failure to implement policies, procedures, and recordkeeping requirements and the overzealous and questionable use of technology by IS personnel without any apparent regard for privacy considerations or sufficient consultation with administrators.

Further, the investigation found no evidence that the district board members of top-level administrators knew how the feature worked or understood that large collections of images could be collected from "unsuspecting" students. The report goes on to say:

To the limited extent that certain of them received indications of the IS Department’s ability to “track” student laptops, those individuals did not appreciate the potential of that ability to raise serious privacy concerns, and they should have sought more information about TheftTrack from IS personnel and/or advice from the District solicitor.

So, basically, they're pleading ignorance and, in essence, placing blame on the IS staff and pointing to incidents that illustrate that staff's "unwillingness" to let anyone outside the IS staff know about the TheftTrack feature.

Maybe I'm feeling a bit grumpy about this whole thing but ignorance, in my opinion, is no excuse.

These district and school administrators are charged with protecting students and keeping them out of harm's way. To use the "we didn't know" defense doesn't cut it here because they should have made it their business to find out.

Did the district really make an investment this big - an Apple laptop for every high school student - without bothering to find out what they were getting and, more importantly, what they were getting themselves into?

There's no going back to undo what's been done already. But I certainly there have been some lessons learned - especially by other school administrators elsewhere who really have no understanding of the technology that's being used by their students.

Topics: Laptops, Hardware, Mobility

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  • So the districts team of lawyers, paid by the

    district finds no fault? Big Shocker there, obviously a lawyer is going to represent the interests of their client.

    If you need to use the feature 27,000+ times, (edit: Excuse me 30,000 times), then there is either some inventory control issues, or someone is just being nosey.

    Their report doesn't pass the sniff test, and by the way ignorance of the law didn't excuse the Nazi's when it came to the war crime trials.
  • RE: Lower Merion webcam scandal: School officials didn't mean to spy

    I agree, and if I was a student there, I'd be sticking duct tape over the webcam just to make sure I wasn't be watched.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • Flight of fancy

    "[i]Did the district really make an investment this big - an Apple laptop for every high school student - without bothering to find out what they were getting and, more importantly, what they were getting themselves into?[/i]"

    Uh, yeah, that's exactly what they did.

    My mother worked for a school district for about 25 years, including 7 years in the high school guidance department as the registrar, several years at a middle school and several years in the district administrative office. At the district level it's [b][i]all[/i][/b] about school politics. The idea that district-level administrators would hire a law firm in advance to address possible privacy issues is just an ignorant fantasy. Ain't gonna happen. Well, the only way it might is if one of the school board members or the District Superintendent has a family member who is a local attorney and they're looking to throw him some business. But it would mainly be an excuse to pay him some money, with minimal work expected in return. Hire a law firm that actually knows something about IT issues and expect them to really research and produce a report? Ain't gonna happen. For one thing, advance warning just means you can't claim someone else screwed up and failed to tell you.
  • I disagree about the ignorance defence

    Basically if they really knew what was going and are lying now, that is a different matter but in general ignorance really is a good defense. I know a lot of lawyers and law enforcement officers disagree but if you really don't know something is happening or is illegal in the first place, how can you actively prevent it or may restitution. Most laws are written to prevent average people from understanding them. If a person has a 6th grade reading level are they going to understand laws that contain Latin (a dead language), a little Greek, and doctoral level English? Most people don't even read the laws that govern them, they run their daily lives on things like "Don't steal", "Don't hit some else", etc.

    If nobody from IS informed the governing body illegal activities were going on, were would they look? Sure you can be paranoid and try to check everything but most of the time in the absence of a whistle blower most spot checks only find what the people being checked want you to find. You have to be a professional and have experience in what you are looking for to spot the evasions.
  • I would like to be on the jury on this one.

    Ignorance of the law has been disallowed in court over and over. Since an AP approached a student with picture evidence of so called evidence using/selling drugs that means that it has left the IT department. This means that the ignorance defence has been compromised. It will be for the prosecution to find how how from from IT this has gotten.

    In the private sector CEOs and presidents have been felled by not knowing what has happened in the company. Afterall they are responsible for the company. Same should be of the district. They should be held accountable as this has affected the entire district, under their control, if I understand correctly.
  • RE: Lower Merion webcam scandal: School officials didn't mean to spy

    Ignorance of the law is not and shold not be a defense. If you commit a traffic offense, you are not going to get away with it by claiming ignorance. Certainly in something as serious as this, ignorance should not be a valid defense. The District leaders should be accountable and further, it was the the responsibility of the IT leaders to ensure the District leaders knew the capabilities of the system. And furthermore, the actions of the lawyers is almost criminal in trying to sweep it under the rug. I think several heads ought to roll right out of a job.
  • RE: Lower Merion webcam scandal: School officials didn't mean to spy

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