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New developments in the “WebcamGate”

Last Thursday, two IT employees involved in the Harriton High School webcam scandal were placed on temporary leave while the investigations into the case continue. However, their lawyers claim that the technicians only turned on the tracking software when they believed that the computers were stolen.  They argue that the student who filed the lawsuit hadn’t paid a $55 insurance fee to take the laptop home, so technically there were authorized to track down the computer.

Justice in your own hands?

According to media reports, the Lower Merrian Police Department also knew about the software. In the case of a theft, the security feature would take every 15 minutes a photo with the webcam. Meanwhile, the company that sold the tracking feature to the Harriton High School, has changed the name of its program and its user policy; from now on, the end users can’t activate the remote webcam anymore. In the Harriton High case, a federal court judge banned the webcam activation of the school distributed laptops. Computer recovery softwares, like for example Prey (open source project!), seem to have become quite common. Even NYU offers such a service. This week, a techie made it into the headlines in Boston when he helped the police to recover his stolen computers. In this case, the victim had previously connected his home computer to his laptops (GoToMyPC is a software that would enable that), and could therefore access the stolen devices, and track their location. However, this feature has a flip side too. As the amateur techie observed, “[i]f (the family) had known what they were doing, they actually could have accessed my home computer from the laptop.” In addition, the question remains if individuals should be motivated to use this software. It is also debatable if evidence collected in this way would be admissible in court. First, it doesn’t prove who has actually stolen the computers; it only shows who the new user is. Second, isn’t first a warrant needed to follow up (even your own) computer?

Who knew what?

The are contrary statements on who knew about the school’s authority to track their computers. On one hand, the plaintiff argues that he was unaware of the feature. On the other hand, I contacted on Facebook a parent who sends his children to the Harriton High school, and he told me the following:

However, it is unclear if teachers have discussed the full implications of the tracking feature with its students, and pointed out the possible risk of privacy invasion. In addition,  as I outlined in my previous post, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) believes that “private schools or employers can ask you to sign away your right to privacy, but not a government entity like a public school.“

Polarized reactions

The scandal has divided the school’s community. Students show their opposition to the schools policy with “LMSD [Lower Merion School District] is watching you” T-shirts. On the correspondent Facebook group, they refer to the school as a “prison.” I’ve contacted several students to get more details, but they haven’t got back to me (yet). Nevertheless, many parents and kids defend the school, and have formed different anti-lawsuit groups, like LMSDParents.org / “Reasonable LMSD parents refusing to rush to judgement” (to whom belongs Jan Klinkewicz), or Parents in Support of the Lowe Merrion School District, which collects signatures for a petition to fight the lawsuit. Concerned about the financial impact of a large class-action settlement, the group held a meeting in opposition to the lawsuit last Tuesday.

I’ve also detected ad-hominem attacks on the comment section of ABC’s local Philadelphia television statement, that seek to discredit the plaintiff’s family and imply that they are seeking personal financial profit from the affair. What should be the appropriate steps to follow? One commentator called willy25 underlines that “[o]nce one child’s rights have been violated, all children are at risk.” In any case, I believe that the most important step is to (re-)establish trust between the school and the students, indispensable for the success of the whole education system.

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  1. Harris 04:13, Mar 7th, 10

    “The most important step is to (re-)establish trust between the school and the students, indispensable for the success of the whole education system.” Very well put.
    And claiming that “the technicians only turned on the tracking software when they believed that the computers were stolen” will not help that.

  2. Alexandra 13:39, Mar 7th, 10

    I second Harris’ comment. Now that no one trusts each other within the school, there is going to be so much distraction that it will be difficult to get down to the business of what school is meant to be – teaching and learning. The administrators should try to get this resolved as quickly as possible to move on.

  3. mushon 08:55, Mar 8th, 10

    My my… Cartesian dualism in the classroom and beyond: “I am using my laptop, therefor I exist”. A very interesting aspect of this is our turn to our centralized physical presence to verify/police our online presence.
    Trust… Trust… Trust… Where would we be without trust, and maybe we’re not ready for this early separation from our physical presence since we have not established enough trust to maintain it.

  4. Ryan 09:51, Mar 8th, 10

    I find it very interesting that that parent was informed by his children that it apparently wasn’t a secret and also the fact that the of course each side in the legal battle are obviously seeming to discredit the other side. I am curious to know the percentage of people who support the school vs. the percentage that are opposed to what they did. I am also very intrigued to how the lawsuit is going to play out and what evidence and testimony each side will use. Either way, a benevolent deed of giving out laptops to student has gone totally down the drain and has jeopardized the trust of a school with its parents and students.

  5. Leslie 13:28, Mar 9th, 10

    I feel like if the technicians were actually turning on the tracking device on the computer because they thought it was stolen, they should have exhausted some other opportunities first, such as checking in with teachers in the student’s designated classes. I’d assume all the student’s class information was right in the school’s system- pending the kid attends classes and did not run off and steal the computer, it should have been relatively easy to physically track him down. It looks like the school system doesn’t trust their students. But now, as Harris & Alex noted, they’re going to be working to gain back the trust of their students and parents.