Big Update: Webcam Investigation Report Released

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on May 05, 2010 10:15 AM

On Monday, the Lower Merion School District released the much anticipated report aimed at answering some of the questions surrounding the suit for invasion of privacy and numerous investigations over the school district's use of webcams on school issued laptops to take photos of students and their families in their homes. The most basic question can of course be summed up as: "what were you thinking?"

The report from the team of attorneys and computer experts was based on 500,000 documents, images and emails (including 58,000 pictures snapped by the webcams) and had this to say in reply: the school district was "overzealous" in its use of technology "without any apparent regard for privacy considerations." 

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the 69 page report found that despite the huge number of improperly acquired images of students in their homes, the school district staff did not intentionally use the technology to spy on the students. However, other findings reported by investigators may do more to bolster the lawsuit brought by student Blake Robbins and his parents against the district for invasion of privacy. This includes the finding that although reports of stolen or missing laptops triggered the vast majority of activations of the webcam tracking system, investigators were "stymied" in 16 instances of activation. Ten activations of students' laptops and six of teachers' were labeled by the report as "Activations for Reasons Unknown."

One other question, bothering this blogger from the beginning and no doubt others following this case is: where was the legal advice? Was the school never advised that, in an age where permission slips are needed to apply sunscreen at school, unauthorized photos of underage students in their homes might raise some parental hackles?

The report has provided an answer: there was an attempt at addressing the issue, but someone apparently dropped the ball. According to The Inquirer, the report found that in 2008, the school district's lawyers began drafting agreements for students and parents to sign to acknowledge that they had no expectation of privacy with the laptops. Not only were those waivers never handed out, investigators can't even find the drafts.

A final side note. The Inquirer reported on Sunday that there was one person who did sound the alarm about potential privacy issues at the time the laptop program began. It was not the school superintendent, not district's attorneys, not the head of the technology department -- it was a high school student.

The student emailed the district's then-top technology administrator, Virginia DiMedio to say, "I could see not informing parents and students of this fact [the webcams] causing a huge uproar." DiMedio, who could not believe that her staff would inappropriately use the technology, dismissed the concerns, telling the student to, "take a breath and relax." No way a lawsuit, a federal investigation and a re-examination of federal law could come out of such an innocent little project.  

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