When No One Says No To A Bad Idea

February 20, 2010

There is a saying that deals with getting input from many sources before a making a decision, it goes “no one of us is as smart as all of us.”  If only we would follow that advice, the world would be a much better place.  Still, even when the “us” part is consulted, there is no guarantee the outcome will not be patently boneheaded.

This particular idea turned out so bad, we have one “Big Brother” outfit, the FBI, investigating another that’s not normally thought of as “Big Brother,” the Lower Merion School District in Lower Merion Township, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.  It seems the school district gave itself the ability to remotely activate the webcams on 2,300 laptops issued to high school students, even when the laptops are located within the student’s home.  What parent, in their right mind, would allow strangers to monitor their children, even in their bedrooms?  That’s just it, they didn’t; parents did not even know the laptops had the capability.  While current civil legal action brought this to light, the FBI is now investigating whether or not the school district violated various federal laws, including wiretapping.

Here’s what we know so far: last November, a vice principal at Harriton High School confronts a sophomore about inappropriate activities the student was involved in within the student’s home and produced photographic evidence to prove it.  The student stated the issue concerned drug use, which he denies.  The VP claims he took drugs, the student claims he was eating candy.  In fairness to the school district, they dispute that they took any improper images, state the vice principal never confronted the student, and that the only time the feature is ever used is to recover a lost or stolen laptop.  Here is a link to their website and their statement concerning this issue: School District Response.

As intriguing as this is (there is bound to be a made for TV movies soon) focusing on this particular incident misses the much broader problem, the school district gave itself the ability to monitor students anytime they have the computer open.  They can claim to the end of days that the ability is only used to recover lost property but they cannot get around it amounting to a government agency placing a “bug” in the home of every high school student that received a laptop.  It brings several questions to mind, does the school district have a legal department?  If so, why don’t they use them?  What morons made this unbelievably bad decision?  What are the odds that voters keep the current school board members in the next election?

The school district seems to be positioning itself behind a claim of oversight regarding consent to this invasion of privacy.  A case can equally be made they deliberately held back this information to prevent tampering with its ability.  Regardless of their true intent, when ability exists, it is used.  An ironic example being the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently found the FBI, the organization investigating the school district, abused a prevision of the Patriot Act designed to gain intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks without a warrant.  In other words, they used the act to circumvent the need for a warrant in non-terrorist related investigations, what the OIG called “a systemic abuse of power.”

The point is no agency should be allowed unchecked power.  The school district is not the police and they do not have the right to investigate crime and gather evidence.  More importantly, they do not have the right to serendipitously monitor students within their homes.  As the case with the FBI illustrates, regardless of initial intent – ability will be used.  This school district may or may not have abused the power, the courts will decide that, but they cannot deny they have the ability.  They cannot deny they did not inform parents of this ability.  Had they, parents would have revolted against the school board.  They had to understand that going into it.  It is the only way educated people, with the intent of improving the education of children can possible make such a stupid decision.


  1. Generally, when I write a comment I have something to add. I am a college professor and a lawyer. But here I see a fully developed piece of writing that goes from event to conclusions. Good thinking. Good writing. Do you think you could get this in the local paper as an op-ed?
    Best wishes,
    James Pilant

    • Thank you, it is nice to receive praise for one’s writing. Still, it’s sort of like receiving a compliment for calling 911 to report a fire, you are glad to do it but you wish you did not have to in the first place.

  2. which brings me back to my last point. HOME SCHOOL.

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