It's an acknowledged fact that modern technology, Google and the rise of social networking sites like Facebook have changed the rules when it comes to expectations of privacy. Most of the time, when we hear that these evolving expectations have tripped someone up, it's because an employee once considered a shoo-in for a job was disqualified when the potential employer found distasteful evidence in the candidate's MySpace profile, blog, or previously unmentioned extensive filmography in German and Japanese porn. In tumultuous times like these, it's understandable that employers and employees can both be caught unawares. Every now and then, however, an organization or individual will make such a mind-blowingly stupid decision that we're left collectively dumbstruck at such an awesome, frightening, and all-encompassing display of ineptitude.
Happily, today is one such day. Put on your helmets kids—we're headed to Philadelphia where a wealthy suburban school district is facing allegations of privacy invasion that would rouse a lawyer's...conscience faster than a trip to your local gentleman's club. You Couldn't Make This Stuff Up
Last November, Lower Merion School District student Blake J. Robbins was called to task by Vice Principal Lindy Matsko principal's office for allegedly engaging in improper behavior. The bombshell is that Robbins wasn't accused of doing anything on school grounds or even during the school day, but had done his naughty deeds in his own home.
As evidence, Matsko cited a photo taken by Robbin's webcam without his knowledge or consent. Blake's parents contacted the Vice Principal, who confirmed that the school district had installed remote monitoring software that allowed it to activate the webcam of any of the Macbooks
it provided to its 1800 students. Neither parents nor students were ever notified that this feature existed, nor were they provided with information on the school's remote monitoring policy.
In the wake of the incident, both the FBI
and the DA of Montgomery County have announced they'll investigate to determine if privacy laws or federal regulations on remote wiretapping were violated through the school's actions. According to district spokesperson Doug Young, the school is vaguely aware it made a booboo. ""There was no specific notification given that described the security feature," Young said. "That... was a significant mistake."
Wearing one black sock and one blue sock is a mistake. Wearing one black sock, one white sock, and two different shoes when you're scheduled to give a presentation to the company CEO is a significant
mistake. What Lower Merion has done falls under the category of "unbelievable world-class stupidity." Young insists that Lower Merion has only activated webcams in an attempt to find lost or stolen laptops, but there's a massive hole in that story. To date, the school has not challenged the issue at the heart of the lawsuit—namely, that the allegations of improper behavior on the part of Blake Robbins were made based on webcam evidence.
Think about that for a moment. Obviously the parents didn't know the laptops could be used for remote monitoring, or Blake's parents wouldn't have contacted the school for additional information. Blake himself could have lied about the existence of a webcam photo, but if there was no photo there would be no allegation of improper behavior at home. Furthermore, if Blake had entirely misrepresented the scenario that led to him being called on the carpet, you'd think the principal would have said so back in November.
As for the improper behavior itself, the family's attorney has stated that Blake was eating Mike and Ike's candy while using the computer. Legal experts and those possessed of common sense have jointly weighed in on the school district's behavior, noting the nearly limitless potential for abuse when the school district has the power to spy on its students at any time, place, or manner of its choosing. As a final bit of irony, we leave you with the last sentence of the flier originally distributed when the laptops were given out. "While other districts are exploring ways to make these kinds of incentives possible, our programs are already in place, it is no accident that we arrived ahead of the curve; in Lower Merion, our responsibility is to lead."
All we can say is, way to go.The original complaint filed by Blake's parents is here