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.