Children and Adolescents Civil Liberties Education

And the WTF Were They Thinking? Award Goes to….


Lower Merion School District, a suburban school district near Philadelphia,
gave nearly 2,300 high school students their own laptop computers.

What a good idea! How great for the students!

Well, as it turns out, yes and no. It seems that, to make sure the computers were secure, the district installed a nifty tracking system into the laptops that, when activated, took surreptitious photos of anything or anyone within reach of the computer’s webcam.

Thus, when students reported their laptops lost or stolen (which several dozen of them did at one time or another) district officials activated the program—and the photo snapping began, with the snapees none the wiser.

In five cases, the snapping continued after the computers were retrieved. In another 15 cases, the program was activated for mysterious reasons when no computer was reported lost or stolen at all.

In total, the district snapped—and stored—58,000 images of students, one every 15 minutes when the machines were on.

One of those students, Blake J. Robbins, was photographed when he was sleeping, when he was partially undressed, and at who knows what other times. (What did you do when you were a teenager and alone in your bedroom? Never mind. Don’t answer that. TMI.) Robbins never had his computer stolen or lost—-and he is suing.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Robbins found out about the web cam surveillance when the assistant school principle scolded him for “improper behavior in his home,” according to the class action lawsuit. Evidently she thought he was doing drugs on camera, when he was actually eating candy—Mike and Ikes to be exact.

(HELPFUL NOTE TO SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR: When possibly illegally spying on someone, let’s say, for example, a minor child not your own, it is generally considered unwise to spontaneously lecture the object of your surveillance about something you saw them doing when they believed they were at home entirely alone.)

The Inquirer has much, much more here and here.

According to the AP, the FBI has opened a criminal investigation into possible wiretap violations by the district, and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, has introduced a bill to include webcam surveillance under the federal wiretap statute.

The photo above, one of those allegedly taken by the secret photo program, shows Robbins sleeping at home at 5 p.m. on Oct 26, 2009.

The mind simply reels at the new and appalling possibilities that this laptop spying story suggests.

PS: The comments section at Boing-Boing features an interesting conversation about the school’s policy and other schools that have tinkered with something similar.


  • Spying has become the new means of aggression. We naturally imitate those in power. If they’re going to spy, we’re going to spy. It used to be do unto others before they do unto you. Now it’s spy on others before they spy on you. If you’re not spying, someone is spying on you. Which side would you rather be on? That seems to be the battle line being drawn.

  • Ah ha! He was sleeping when he was supposed to be doing his homework!

    Actually, I can’t find anything to disagree with you on this. Sorry.

  • Celeste so politely suggested:

    “It causes people to tune out—both from anything that you two have to say, and from the thread in general. It’s like two people monopolizing the conversation at the dinner table. After a while, everyone loses interest.

    In other words, both your points—and the conversation in general— would be better served if you posted less.”

    Thank you.

    Prior to this post, since then, here’s the scoreboard.

    Total comments 45

    Rob 18

    Sure Fire 7

    Woody 6

    ATQ 3

    Mavis B 3

    Celeste 3

    WTF 2

    DQ 1

    Ryan 1

    Rob comes in at 40%. The next closest is SF at a mere 18%.
    Among 9 commenters, Rob owns 40% of the comments and more than doubles those of anyone else.
    That doesn’t even count the personal attacks from him she deleted. LOL.
    Celeste, is this what you were talking about above when you spoke of people monopolizing the conversation?

  • So, the question of the day is this:
    Would the readers of the blog rather listen to one guy pretty much give a monologue without someone else countering his points…..
    Or listen to the back and forth between him and somebody else who refuses to let him monopolize the conversation because he fails to heed your very polite suggestion that he stop.

    What have we learned here?
    If two people are asked to quit monopolizing the conversation, and only one agrees and stops, then the conversation is monopolized by ONE person.
    That is TRULY a monopoly.

  • The people running the school district are (supposedly) well educated at institutions of higher learning.
    Yet not one, NONE of the district administrators had the foresight and common sense to foresee this happening?
    NOBODY???????? had the good sense to say whoa, sounds like a good idea, but’s it’s a really bad idea to surreptitiously film juveniles.
    If I was the parent of a kid at that school my kid would be out of that school the next day.
    It’s obviously run by “educated idiots”.

  • Answering The Question, that “scoreboard” doesn’t include the posts by YOU, Sure Fire, and WTF that Celeste deleted, as well. Do you really think we’re that stupid?

  • Talk about people playing with their wand too much, who’s the guy that actually bused out the calculator to figure out the percentage of peoples comments here?

    I guess some people would need a calculator to figure out that 18 is 40% of 45. LOL.
    If you just add a zero to the 18 (180) it doesn’t take a calculator to do the math, 45 into 180. 4 x 45=180. Four times even. Which means 40%
    Wow. Shazaaam. This high arithmetic shit is pretty snappy.
    Where do I sign up for the rocket scientist shit?

  • “Do you really think we’re that stupid?”

    Oh my. How wide open does he leave himself with that question after telling us he would need a calculator to figure out a VERY SIMPLE math equasion?

    Feel free to weigh in here any time. You and I know you haven’t deleted any of my comments since your suggestion. I only commented three times prior to #4 on this thread, and they were all civil with no personal attacks. I heeded your suggestion and stopped the serial posting.
    The same cannot be said for some people.

  • You know, I was thinking about voting against Obama the next election, because he seems like an elitist. I never put much value into education, because I always thought if you loved your country, it doesn’t matter. God will see the way through. But now that you’re mocking my math skills, ATQ, and considering you’re an open critic of Obama, I think I am going to vote for him, now. Obama never mocked my math skills.

  • “I never put much value into education”

    Noooooo. He’s kidding…right?

    Tisk tisk tisk. He just can’t help himself can he?

  • Well, this is unfortunate. You see, ATQ, I thought Obama and those Dems, and those Hollywood cocktail crowds, were the real elitists. You had me sold. I was seriously considering not voting for Obama in ’12 because of what you taught me. But now you’re mocking my math skills. Funny, they never have. Celeste nor any of her cocktail party friends mocked my math skills. Obama never mocked them. Just you. Now I’m convinced that you’re actually the elitist, not this liberal establishment you’re always talking about. You had me fooled.

  • “Celeste nor any of her cocktail party friends mocked my math skills. Obama never mocked them. Just you.”

    They probably never heard him say he needed a calculator for a 5th grade division problem with small, round numbers.

    “Now I’m convinced that you’re actually the elitist”

    He’s also convinced that Daryl Gates = Hitler is a proportionally accurate comparison.

    “You had me fooled.”

    Noooooo. Not him? No way I fool such an intellectual as Rob.
    He’s such a jokester.

  • What are the odds that Rob and Celeste/friends would be at the same cocktail party?

    NOW I need a calculator.

  • A lot of Americans need calculators, ATQ. Maybe it’s unfortunate. We should have been educated better. But a lot of God fearing Americans like me believe that faith in the almighty and love for country are more important than education and money. And we vote. You’ve been telling me that Obama was an elitist, and part of a country club sect of politicians who aren’t in touch with real Americans. And, I believed you. But now you’re mocking me for my math skills and for not being rich?. It makes me think that YOU are the elitist. I’m now inclined to vote for Obama, now that the person who I thought had educated me on him turned out to be a fraud. Keep driving people away from the movement to throw Obama out of office, by mocking their lack of education and wealth. Keep driving that car off the cliff.

  • Based upon Obama’s deficits and his funny math on health care costs and taxes, he must not have elitiest math skills either.

    What about Celeste’s poetry reading club gang friends? They can’t add, as their answers come out like ten to twenty or twenty but it could be five with parole.

  • “You’ve been telling me that Obama was an elitist, and part of a country club sect of politicians who aren’t in touch with real Americans.”

    I’ve never said any of that. He has me confused with somebody else. But then, he’s got alot of things confused, bless his little heart.

    “and for not being rich?.”

    Never mocked him for that. Never mocked anybody for that.
    I can see why he put posed it as a question.

    “It makes me think that YOU are the elitist”

    Two posts in a row saying that. I guess he thinks we have reading retention problems also.

  • (Cocktail party friends?)

    His words. Not mine. I would never more refer to someone like that. That can be as insulting as referring to someone and their “redneck friends”.
    Both can be interpreted as insults, very easily.
    Freudian slip that turns out to be a insult. We know what he thinks about people who are financially well off.

  • You weren’t mocking my math skills? Seemed like it to me, but, if you insist you weren’t, fair enough. I’m not going to be like Sure Fire and insist someone meant something when they clearly say they didn’t. We all generalize sometimes and if someone’s going to clear up their point, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. But I was going to say, if you were mocking my math skills, I’d have to really consider signing on to your political views. You’re very critical of Obama. Obama never mocked my math skills. I’m a red blooded American, and I believe patriotism and my belief in the ONE AND ONLY Christian God is more important than fancy shmancy math skills. This aint Europe. So, if you want me to sign on to your political views, and vote the way you do, you shouldn’t make fun of me. How’s the phrase go? You catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar. Hee haw.

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