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Thursday, April 22, 2010
This image of Harriton High student Blake Robbins was made surreptitiously by a school-issued laptop, his parents say.

The sheer volume of Web-cam photos snapped by the Lower Merion School District to track school-issued laptops indicates how oblivious school officials were to students’ privacy rights.

An investigation by the district found that nearly 56,000 images were taken after tracking software was turned on, usually when a computer was reported missing.

Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., the attorney hired by the district to lead the inquiry, said the photos did not capture students in embarrassing poses.

But that doesn’t excuse the district’s actions. As Hockeimer said: “The taking of these pictures without student consent in their homes was obviously wrong.”

In fact, every one of the photos was inappropriate, since they violated students’ expected right to privacy in their own homes.

Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins — whose federal privacy lawsuit in February exposed the tracking effort — was photographed asleep while shirtless, according to his family’s attorney.

School officials stumbled badly by failing to alert students and their families that the Web cams on their laptops could be activated as an antitheft measure. But even with such disclosure, the tracking program posed too much of a risk to students’ privacy.

From a technical point of view, there were far more effective means to track lost or stolen computers that wouldn’t have involved turning the laptops into spy-cams.

It’s clear that Lower Merion officials need to explore other, nonintrusive security measures to keep track of the laptops. That said, there are more questions to answer about the Web-cam controversy and a need for greater disclosure.

It’s a good idea for district officials to have parents review the images taken of their children, if only to reassure families as to the full dimension of any privacy breaches.

District officials also need to explore whether any staff abused the tracking program for purposes other than tracking missing laptops.

Hockeimer’s review turned up a number of instances where it is not clear why laptop cameras were activated. Federal officials investigating the controversy will likely provide a more thorough and independent review.

Students might have been shielded from Web-cam surveillance had state or federal wiretap laws clearly applied to the secretive recording of soundless video images. Fortunately, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) hopes to close that loophole with congressional legislation he introduced last week.

Posted by Inquirer editorial board @ 2:00 AM  Permalink | Post a comment
About The Inquirer Editorial Board
Harold Jackson, a winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights movement. He graduated from Baker University in Baldwin, Kan., in 1975, with a degree in journalism/political science. He has also worked at the Birmingham Post-Herald, United Press International, the Birmingham News, and the Baltimore Sun. He was at The Inquirer in the mid-1980s, returned in 1999, and became editorial page editor in 2007.

Paul Davies is the deputy editor of the Editorial Page. His newspaper career has spanned more than 20 years and includes stints at The Wall Street Journal and the Philadelphia Daily News. He graduated from the University of Delaware and received a masters in journalism from Columbia University, where he was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow. He was born in Philadelphia and still lives in the city.

Tony Auth began drawing while bedridden for a year and a half at the age of five. He graduated from UCLA in 1965 and worked for six years as a medical illustrator while doing three cartoons a week for various college newspapers. Tony has been happily ensconced as The Inquirer’s editorial cartoonist since 1971. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and has won numerous other awards, including five Overseas Press Club Awards, the Sigma Delta Chi award for distinguished service in Journalism, and the Herblock and Thomas Nast Prizes. Tony is married to Eliza Drake Auth, a painter of realistic landscapes and portraits.

Trudy Rubin is the foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and a member of The Inquirer’s editorial board. Her column appears twice weekly in The Inquirer and runs regularly in many other newspapers around the United States. She is the author of Willful Blindness: The Bush Administration and Iraq.

Kevin Ferris is an assistant editor on the Editorial Board who oversees the Sunday Currents section and writes a weekly column on a wide range of issues. In his 15 years on the board, he’s handled letters to the editor and the Community Voices pages and has been Commentary Page editor. He started with The Inquirer in 1986, and his assignments have ranged from the copy and news desks to the Chester County bureau and the national/foreign desk.

As an editorial writer for The Inquirer for the past two decades, Russell Cooke has written on a wide range of topics covering government, legal, civic and social issues. Before joining the Editorial Board, he was a reporter in the Inquirer’s City Hall bureau.

Editorial writer Dave Boyer joined The Inquirer in 2002. He writes about politics, government, the economy, sports and many other subjects, but draws the line at writing about "Jon & Kate Plus Eight." He has won journalism awards and insists bribery was not involved. A native of Allentown, Boyer graduated from Penn State. He and his wife reside in Center City, where they enjoy strolling and paying the wage tax.

Melanie Burney joined the editorial board in January 2008 after covering education at the Inquirer for eight years. She previously worked at the Associated Press in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey. She is a graduate of Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, and a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Josh Gohlke has been The Inquirer’s op-ed editor since last year, editing the daily commentary page and writing occasional editorials. He came to the Inquirer after eight years at The Record of Bergen County, N.J., first as a reporter covering local and state politics and government and ultimately as the deputy editorial page editor. He also worked as a reporter for several smaller papers in New Jersey and California. Josh was born and raised in Los Angeles and graduated from Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia.