Friday, April 16, 2010

Peek-a-Boo High

Here's a little update on those infamous Pennsylvania school officials who really should have known better.

As you might recall, earlier this year, students at Pennsylvania's Harriton High filed a class action complaint alleging that Lower Merion School District administrators were spying on students in their homes by activating the webcams on school-issued laptops. Stryde Hax's blog has thorough technical details on the software, hardware, tools and tricks used in this digital panopticon.

But more details are emerging as key players are brought in for deposition in the federal invasion-of-privacy lawsuit brought by Blake Robbins, a Harriton High School sophomore.

The school had originally stated that they only used the built-in webcams to secretly photograph students 42 times. Yeah, only 42 times! But if that wasn't enough to make you scream, try this: there were actually 42 instances where the school remotely enabled intense surveillance which activated tracking software which would snap a new picture every 15 minutes until the laptop was turned off.

As any intelligent person would guess, this surveillance resulted in thousands of pictures of students at home -- sometimes catching the teens partially undressed. Did these district employees think? Did they realize this was wrong? Did they realize this was an invasion of privacy? Did they realize that photographing minors in various states of undress was likely illegal? Well, apparently they thought their new super-powers were pretty cool:
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.
If Carol Cafiero wasn't constitutionally savvy back then, she certainly is now. She's invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to every question at the deposition. Of course, in her unfortunate position, as one of only two school district officials authorized to remotely activate the cameras, this is probably the smart thing to do. Too bad she became smart too late.

I hope LMSD officials eventually face a judge and jury with zero tolerance for wiretapping.

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