Classroom Technology

Second Suit Surfaces in Philly ‘Webcamgate’

By Ian Quillen — July 28, 2010 2 min read
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This had to be coming eventually, didn’t it?

A second student and his family are suing the Lower Merion School District in the Philadelphia suburbs after hundreds of secret photographs and screen shots were taken by the student’s school-issued laptop, according to reports by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and the Associated Press.

The suit, which follows another suit filed in February by a Harriton High sophomore, alleges Lower Marion High senior Jalil Hasan had at least 469 photos taken and 543 screens grabbed from his webcam-equipped laptop between last December and February. The remote surveilance—an anti-theft security practice the district has since abandoned—apparently began when Hasan left the device in an art class, and later retrieved it after it had been turned in to the school’s technology department. Hasan said he didn’t find out about any of the recorded images until this month.

After the first suit, the district’s internal investigation revealed more than half of the 58,000 images produced by the system had been taken because technicians failed to turn off tracking software after laptops had been recovered. The feature had been turned on 76 times in a two year period. Perhaps influenced by what the Daily News called a “large contingent” of high school parents who were opposed to the initial suit, none of the others affected by the feature had decided to pursue litigation, until now.

Attorney Mark S. Haltzman, who is representing the plaintiffs in both suits, said it’s unclear whether this could turn into a class action suit. Not surprisingly, district superintendent Christopher McGinely issued a statement saying “there is no evidence that any students were intentionally targeted” and that “continued litigation is clearly not the right way to proceed and not in the best interest of the students or the school district community.”

The privacy issues of this case have been well-explored, and do not shine favorably on the district. But there’s another note of caution here that districts shouldn’t forget, especially as pressure builds to do more with less.

That a security feature was working more than half the time in error is a shocking statistic, but it also points to the understandable temptation to integrate technology without proper human support backing it up. That’s not to say even more measured use of such a feature wouldn’t be an invasion of privacy. But it’s hard to imagine anything approaching this level of outrage if 95 percent of the photographs taken by the devices came with due cause.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.