Philly’s “Webcamgate”: No Ethics Controversy, Just Unethical

Ethics Alarms has not discussed the Lower Merion School District’s “Webcamgate” scandal, in part because its facts are still somewhat in doubt, and because I found it difficult to believe that what had been reported was true. High school student Blake Robbins sued the District after officials reprimanded for him for conduct inside his Pennsylvania Valley home. Apparently he was caught on the webcam of the Apple MacBook that the district supplies to its 2,300 high school students. Following an investigation by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office and the FBI, it was confirmed that the cameras were programmed to be turned on remotely by school officials, but, say those officials, only to track down stolen computers, not to spy on students, their friends and their parents.

As the court case gets underway, Carol Cafiero, the information-systems coordinator who was a key mover in the  plan as well as one of two officials who could turn on students’ webcams, is fighting a subpoena to testify. Her lawyer is quoted as saying that “she has done nothing wrong.”

What??? Nothing illegal, perhaps (though I think she has), but nothing wrong? Of course she did something wrong! The school administrators did something wrong, the school district did something wrong, everyone connected to this astoundingly unethical system did something wrong. Every single individual who knew about, planned, implemented or approved this jaw-droppingly ill-conceived system did something wrong, because Blake Robbins and his fellow students live in Philadelphia, not in Stalinist Russia or the pages of George Orwell’s “1984”, and surreptitiously placing a remotely-controlled camera in an individual’s home—whether or not is ever turned on or used for any purpose whatsoever—is an abuse of authority, an outrageous breach of trust of trust, a dishonest act, disrespectful and unfair, an invasion of privacy, demeaning to human dignity, and such an obvious violation of the Golden Rule that any fourth grader could see it immediately. It is so wrong that it is insulting to a reader to have to read an explanation of why it is wrong (I apologize), which is why, based on the now-established fact that the cameras were in the laptops, were capable of being turned on remotely and the school didn’t tell either the students or their families about it, there is no good reason any of the officials responsible, be it four or four hundred, still are getting pay checks from the Lower Merion School District.

“But how can we track stolen laptops?”, they may ask plaintively. Answer: Any way you can come up with that doesn’t involve doing a flamenco on the rights and dignity of your students and their families, or no way at all, but not this way.

4 thoughts on “Philly’s “Webcamgate”: No Ethics Controversy, Just Unethical

  1. The school administrations have been bizarre, to say the least. I think such lame excuses would land any student who tried to use them in detention.

    (1) They claim they only turn on the cameras to locate missing or stolen computers.

    (2) They state the the victims’ computer was neither missing nor stolen.

    (3) The student was called in to be punished for behavior witnessed on the camera. This is said to be several pills visible on the students desk in their room.

    I think it would serve them right if several students protested that they dressed and undressed in front of those laptops while they were in their room and the school may have generated and be in possession of child pornography.

    The ‘tracking lost laptops’ idea is a joke. There have been many commercial programs to allow laptops to be tracked without remotely turning on the webcam. What they did is the equivalent of planting hidden cameras in the locker rooms, but only to investigate graffiti and vandalism.

  2. The “tracking lost laptops” excuse seems to me to be a transparent lie. It really boggles the mind that anyone would dream up or approve such a thing. I’m seriously considering allowing my son to run wild and free like a free-range chicken—he’s got to be better off than spending is days in the company of people like this.

  3. This is invasion of privacy, pure and simple. What weirdo or pedophile is watching these kids in their homes? Everyone knows that computers can be tracked in a number of other (and by the way, extremely less expensive) ways. My son, who also has a school issued laptop, says his school system uses something called a “tracking tattoo” which has a GPS tracking system on it… NO camera. He also says he would know in a minute if any camera were installed on his school laptop. He says he has followed this story on line and says there were numerous reports by students to the School District of apparent “malfunctions” in the camera light going on and off when they were in their homes. Haven’t seen any reports of this.

    My son knows computers, and knows what his school issued computer can and cannot do. Nevertheless, he uses the school laptop at school and his own laptop at home.

    Something is very wrong here. Who made this decision in Philadelphia and why did they do it? Was it some creepy tech and administrators who were not up to speed on the technology? “What did they know and when did they know it?” AND, to overplay their hand and interrogate a kid based on what he had on his desk IN HIS OWN HOME is not only IGNORANT but MORONIC.

    That entire school system should be fired. I can only assume the the lawyers representing these students can easily discover the other ways laptops can be tracked, as in my son’s school. There must be more than lack of “due diligence” on the part of the school system for them to install webcams… if not, they are just too completely stupid to be involved in the educational system. Frankly, I think it’s more sinister than that.

    Back to home schooling, guys.

  4. Pingback: Abuse of Power in the Schools, Part 1: Pimping the Kids « Ethics Alarms

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