When Privacy, Morality and Stupidity Collide

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, February 22, 2010

The Associated Press reported recently that the FBI is investigating a Pennsylvania school district accused of “secretly activating webcams inside students' homes.”  The FBI will explore whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws by activating the webcams in laptops that the school owns and distributes to students. 

School officials acknowledged that they remotely activated webcams 42 times in the past 14 months, but only to find missing student laptops, says AP. They insist they never did so to spy on students, as one student's family claims in a federal lawsuit.  Families were not informed of the possibility the webcams might be activated in their homes without their permission in the paperwork students sign when they get the computers. 

My initial reaction to this news was a puzzled yawn.  Lower Merion issues Apple laptops to all 2,300 students at its two high schools, says AP. Only two employees in the technology department were authorized to activate the cameras—and only to locate missing laptops.  It seems, however, that the student involved in the lawsuit was caught on camera engaging in what a school official called “improper behavior.”  The school insists this revelation came about as part of its normal policy of searching for lost or stolen laptops. 

I got a big laugh out of the notion that this was a horrible intrusion into the lives of these kids, because they might be “exploring their sexuality,” and they might just accidentally keep their school laptops in their bedrooms with the webcams appropriately aimed to capture any action.   Are we talking here about the same teenagers who often post lewd or suggestive pictures of themselves online for anyone and everyone to see?  Are we talking about the same kids who are all too aware of webcam technology and are often expert in its use?  Do you feel the pain of credulity being strained?

But here’s the real issue.  The school owns the computers and gives them out to students for their use over a specified period of time.  The school reasonably expects that the laptops will be used for normal educational purposes and nothing else.  At the same time, the school has every right to track the whereabouts of its valuable computers—and to determine how those computers are being used. 

Now let’s take this discussion into the business world.  As you may know, some rental car companies install satellite tracking devices in their cars to track and or locate their vehicles should they wish to do so.  Funny, but I’m not seeing any lawsuits over that practice—even though one might claim this as an intrusion into the privacy of their whereabouts. 

The same kind of tracking and monitoring is sometimes applied to business laptops issued by insurers or agents, and given the number of laptops that are routinely lost or stolen, that seems like a wise strategy.  It also allows employers who own the laptops to verify that the units are being used for legitimate business purposes.  So business users can hardly complain if such monitoring reveals inappropriate activities on their part and that revelation results in some form of discipline or even termination. 

Privacy “advocates” weep over missteps revealed through technology, but the answer to this dilemma is really quite simple: Don’t do things you’re not supposed to do.  I know this is a radical concept, but if you think about it, it makes total sense.   And if you just can’t help yourself and must run afoul of the law or of moral rectitude, at least have the intelligence (and decency) to put that webcam-equipped laptop into its case. 

To put it simply, if the school or carrier or broker owns the equipment you are using, it is absolutely entitled to monitor your use of that equipment at any time.   If you are then foolish enough to do something inappropriate with that equipment, you might just as well complain about the hidden cameras that recorded you robbing a bank.  The problem isn’t that someone was looking when you strayed from the path; the problem is that you strayed from the path. 

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

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Comments (2)

Thanks for your posting. I have seen several stories on this incident since I wrote about it, and some partly agree with your take, while others do not. In any case, my point about the school owning the laptops is still valid. It may be mandatory to have a laptop, but the school still owns the equipment and has every right to ascertain its whereabouts and its uses. If something criminal has gone on from the school's end, then obviously that is inexcusable, but that remains to be seen. I have not seen any stories accusing the teachers of transmitting nude images of minors. I would certainly find such activity reprehensible; if it took place it should be punished severely. Again, however, that remains to be seen.

Posted by: Ara T | February 26, 2010 4:25 PM

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You couldn't be more wrong on this issue. Here are some facts left out of your "reporting"...

1) The laptops are MANDATORY for the children. Parents cannot "opt-out". The laptops are provided by the school district.
2) The "event" (which you insinuated was sexual) consisted of the student eating a Mike & Ike candy. The school administration assumed the child was consuming drugs, and took disciplinary action against him.
3) The laptop was never reported stolen, and yet the administrators still remote activated the camera and took pictures on their own initiative.
4) Neither parents, nor the children were advised that the school district could remote activate the cameras without their knowledge.
5) While this is perfectly fine activity ON SCHOOL PROPERTY, this took place in the privacy of the home, in the bedroom of the underage student. It is common place for students to keep electronic devices in their rooms.

While this sounds innocent, perhaps its because you don't have an underage daughter, who might be caught undressing in the privacy of her bedroom by spying teachers.

The school district is being investigated by the FBI because if this occurred, those teachers are guilty of a FEDERAL FELONY in Title 18 Part 1, Chapter 110 Section 2252, which details the transmission of visual images of nude children, and carries a mandatory 5-20 year prison sentence.

Perhaps you find felony activities deserving of a laugh and gloss-over, but as a parent I find your disturbing remarks on nude minors to be extremely offensive!

Posted by: Kevin D | February 26, 2010 11:59 AM

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