Lower Merion Lacked Proper Policies in Webcam Case, Report Says

A report commissioned by the Lower Merion School District says school officials failed to implement appropriate policies governing the use of tracking software by the school system's IT department, leaving the technology open to abuse. The findings are the latest twist in a legal battle in which a family is accusing the district of spying on a student in his home using the Webcam on a school-issued laptop.

The Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania failed to adopt official guidelines governing the use of tracking software on school laptops and left the technology open to abuse, according to a report released May 3.

The 72-page report was commissioned by the school district (PDF) in response to Webcam spying allegations leveled by the family of a local student. In February, the parents of Harriton High School student Blake Robbins sued the district, accusing it of using tracking software to take a picture of Robbins in his home via the Webcam on his school-issued Apple MacBook.

While the report, by Ballard Spahr, the law firm hired by the school district, acknowledges that "copies of 30,564 Webcam photographs and 27,428 screenshots existed in IS [Information Services] Department systems as of Feb. 23, 2010," it says there is no evidence that district administrators were involved in spying on students.

"Notwithstanding the large quantity of images collected by LANrev TheftTrack, we found no evidence that the feature was used to 'spy' on students," the report states.

"Although there is no forensic method to determine with certainty how often images stored on the LANrev server were viewed, we found no evidence that any District 3 personnel surreptitiously downloaded images from the LANrev server. Rather, the collection of images from laptops while they were in the possession of students resulted from the district's failure to implement policies, procedures and recordkeeping requirements, and the overzealous and questionable use of technology by IS personnel without any apparent regard for privacy considerations or sufficient consultation with administrators."

According to the district, the software used to remotely activate the laptops was a security feature designed to recover the computers if they were lost or stolen. After the Robbins family filed suit, the school system said it would not reactivate the feature without written notification to parents and students.

"There is no evidence that members of LMSD's board or top-level district administrators (including the superintendent, assistant superintendent, and the principals and assistant principals of HHS and LMHS) knew how TheftTrack worked or understood that it could collect large quantities of Webcam photographs or screenshots from unsuspecting students and their laptops," the report reads.

A copy of the Robbins lawsuit can be viewed here. (PDF)