Laptop Spy Scandal Administrator Just "Loved" Violating Students' Fourth Amendment Rights
from the surveillance-state-soap-opera dept
Earlier this year a school outside of Philadelphia was busted giving students laptops that included hidden software that covertly allowed school officials to turn on the cameras and monitor the students — no matter where they were. The not-so-brilliant scheme came to light when one child was disciplined for behavior that was only captured thanks to these laptops. Not surprisingly, a fairly huge scandal was born, followed by a lawsuit against the school district. The school district has long claimed that the surveillance system was only used to locate missing laptops. But a new motion (pdf) filed as part of the lawsuit now claims that not only were thousands of photos taken, many were taken of students who never reported their laptops missing. Meanwhile, the lawyer claims to have e-mails from the plan administrator (who has been pleading the fifth) highlighting how she was really having a great time watching student "soap operas" unfold:
"Back at district offices, the Robbins motion says, employees with access to the images marveled at the tracking software. It was like a window into "a little LMSD soap opera," a staffer is quoted as saying in an e-mail to Carol Cafiero, the administrator running the program. "I know, I love it," she is quoted as having replied."
One family involved in the suit provided evidence that their 15-year-old son was photographed more than 400 times over the course of two weeks last fall (his laptop was neither missing or stolen), but their lawyer provided just one surprisingly well lit and framed (for a laptop) photo taken of their son sleeping. The school district has subsequently issued a statement admitting the system took photos, but denying that they engaged in any deliberate wrong doing or that the photos were used for any "inappropriate purposes." Senator Arlen Specter, engaged in a heated battle for re-election, used the story as a springboard to call for tougher federal wiretap laws. Specter went so far as to hold a hearing near the school, where one parent insisted that warnings would be enough:
"Bob Wegbreit said a warning might suffice to let families know the district might activate webcams without a student’s knowledge. Students could then choose to keep the computers in other parts of the house, instead of their bedrooms, said Wegbreit, whose group fears the lawsuit will damage the upscale district’s finances and reputation."
It might be a little too late for that, Bob (besides, "warnings" don’t trump that whole Fourth Amendment thing). Even if you could somehow argue the project didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment, it remains mind boggling that anybody, at any level in the district, would think that off-site covert photography of students was a bright idea for any reason. As more and more schools offer kids laptops and netbooks, this case acts as a reminder to parents and students to ask questions as these kinds of programs are developed elsewhere. It’s also a warning shot to administrators who think protecting their property (or personal amusement) trumps a student’s right to privacy at home. You do start to wonder where people could possibly be getting the idea that surveillance with no recourse to law or common sense is a good idea.