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February 21 2010

Criminal Investigation Possible In Pennsylvania School Webcam Debacle

It has not been a good weekend for the officials at the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania.

Yesterday brought the news that both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Montgomery County detectives were launching investigations into the possibility that the Lower Merion School District had violated both wiretapping and computer-intrusion laws.  Not wasting any time, Philly.com is reporting that grand jury subpoenas have already been issued to the schools for records and logs relating to the activation of the webcams built into school issued laptops.

The whole saga began on Thursday when the Blake Robbins class action suit against the school district came to light.  Mr. Robbins had been accused of “improper behavior in his home,” and was presented with a printed out picture from a computer webcam as evidence.  Mr. Robbins told the media gathered outside of his home recently that the image was of him eating Mike & Ike candies, which the school mistook for illegal pills, and has again stated this on the CBS’ Early Show Saturday Edition this weekend.

District spokesman Doug Young said that the cameras had been activated 42 times in the past 18-months in an effort to to find lost or stolen computers, of which 18 had been recovered.  Although Mr. Young would not specify why this particular camera that saw Mr. Robbins had been activated, he told the Associated Press, “infer what you want.”  The latest motion in the case states, “[Blake Robbins] was at home using a school issued laptop that was neither reported lost nor stolen when his image was captured by Defendants without his or his parents’ permission and while he was at home,” according to ComputerWorld.

The latest motions filed in court against the school are to bar any discussion with students or their families about the matter during the investigations.  Also, all files, logs and so on are to be preserved as evidence until further notice.  And it may not just be the FBI and county detectives that the school district has to be worried about, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said yesterday: “We’re going to be looking into the situation to see if a criminal investigation is warranted.”

One of the most damning statements to be made so far has come from Virginia DiMedio, the district’s technology director until she retired last summer.  Again according to Philly.com, Ms. DiMedio said that she recalled no discussions about what to tell families about the security system, and how and when it would be used.

While Dr. Christopher McGinley has repeatedly apologized for the supposed oversight of informing families of the technology being installed on the laptops, things are looking more and more like the school just completely disregarded not only common sense, but the law in its actions.  The idea of supplying each student with a laptop is an admirable one, there are other loss prevention alternatives such as GPS and LoJack that could have easily located any lost or stolen laptops without ever needing to activate the webcams.  This is such a heinous violation of privacy that it is mind boggling.  And while the school still states that logs were kept of each activation, and only two employees had access to the software, this situation was a voyeurs dream come true.  All it would have taken is one less than moral employee to ruin many teenagers lives for years to come.

Willa McGowan, 17, of Rosemont, told Philly.com that while she was concerned about the webcams, she also worried about the school district’s reputation.  “Honestly, I love this school and this school district,” she said. “I don’t want this case to sully Lower Merion’s name.”  I’m sorry to say Ms. McGowan, that boat has already sailed it seems.



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