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Superintendent of Pennsylvania School Accused of Spying on Students via Webcam Responds to Allegations

Dr. Christopher McGinley, superintendent of the Lower Merion, Pennslvania school district that is currently embroiled in a national scandal over alleged spying via webcams in school-provided laptops, replied to the allegations in an email sent out to parents today.

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Dr. Christopher McGinley, superintendent of the Lower Merion, Pennslvania school district that is currently embroiled in a national scandal over alleged spying via webcams in school-provided laptops, replied to the allegations in an email sent out to parents today.

Some background: Lower Merion School District, located in the stretch of the Philadelphia suburbs known as the Pennsylvania Main Line, is one of the wealthiest and most decorated public school districts in the country. It’s even able to provide Apple MacBook laptops to all 2,300 students in its Harriton High School–a luxury that’s increasingly looking more creepy than admirable. Students had been reporting for the last year that the tiny green LED light next to their school-provided laptop’s webcam had been lighting up at random times, indicating the webcam itself was in use, for no clear reason. That problem was waved off as a technical glitch by the school’s security and technology department.

But two days ago, sophomore Blake Robbins filed a disturbing lawsuit against the school district. He was disciplined by the high school’s vice principal for “improper behavior in his home,” with the vice principal citing photos taken by his laptop as evidence of this vague wrongdoing. After some digging, it was discovered that the school had installed software on the laptops that allowed the security and technology department to remotely take photos using the laptops’ webcams–they say the software is only used in case of a stolen or misplaced laptop, which doesn’t entirely mesh with the “improper behavior” session Robbins endured. Articles appeared in the AP, Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times, and all over the blog world, all outraged. Today, the superintendent of the school district responded with this letter:

Dear LMSD Parents/Guardians,

Our history has been to go to great
lengths to protect the privacy of our students; whether it comes to
student health, academic or other records. In fact, many of you may
remember the heated debate over whether to have security cameras
monitor some of our food vending machines.

Privacy is a basic
right in our society and a matter we take very seriously. We believe
that a good job can always be done better.

Recent publicity
regarding the District’s one-to-one high school laptop initiative, and
questions about the security of student laptops prompted our
administration to revisit security procedures.

Laptops are a
frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. District
laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen
and missing laptops. The security feature, which was disabled today,
was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported
lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the
student.

Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing
laptop, the feature was activated by the District’s security and
technology departments. The security feature’s capabilities were
limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s
screen. This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a
lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the
security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner
whatsoever.

As a result of our preliminary review of security procedures today, I directed the following actions:

— Immediate disabling of the security-tracking program.

— A thorough review of the existing policies for student laptop use.


A review of security procedures to help safeguard the protection of
privacy; including a review of the instances in which the security
software was activated. We want to ensure that any affected students
and families are made aware of the outcome of laptop recovery
investigations.

— A review of any other technology areas in which the intersection of privacy and security may come into play.

We
are proud of the fact that we are a leader in providing laptops to
every high school student as part of our instructional program. But we
need to be equally as proud of the safeguards we have in place to
protect the privacy of the users, as well as to safeguard
district-owned property while being used by students.

We regret
if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our
students and families. If you have any questions or concerns, please
email us at info@lmsd.org. Additional information has been posted on our website, www.lmsd.org.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Sincerely,

Dr. Christopher W. McGinley

Superintendent of Schools

Lower Merion School District

I contacted a teacher at the Lower Merion School District, who told me that the teachers and other staff are under “a very severe gag order” not to speak to press–it is an ongoing legal case, after all, and the school district is being very careful not to say anything to incriminate themselves. I spoke to a few other people in the community (I grew up on the Main Line myself, just down the road from Lower Merion) who said that the story has been dominating local news–the Main Line Times seems to be camped outside the high school–and that parents are extremely concerned about the possibility of school officials being able to spy on their children outside school grounds.

The school maintains its statement that while the terms of use are incomplete, their intentions were good and the ability to spy was never actually misused, even though the possibility was there. We’ll update the story as events unfold.

[Via Main Line Times]

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About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law

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