To recap: In February, the Robbins family filed a lawsuit — Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (pdf) — alleging that the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania misused the 2,300 Webcam-enabled laptops it issued to students in order to remotely peep into the students’ homes, take photographs and violate their privacy. The school district said it used the webcams only to track school-issued laptops that it thought were lost, stolen or inadvertently taken without permission. In May, lawyers and computer experts hired by the district to investigate the case released a report (pdf) that said there was “overzealous and questionable use of technology by [Information Services] personnel without any apparent regard for privacy considerations or sufficient consultation with administrators.” Later that month, a federal judge “permanently banned the Lower Merion School District from using webcams or other intrusive technology to secretly monitor students through their school-issued laptops.” (Wired had a story about security vulnerabilities in LANrev Theft Track, a remote-surveillance technology used by Lower Merion School District.)
Now, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the Lower Merion School District’s school board has unanimously passed new policies “to govern the use and tracking of student laptops and other technology” to avoid a repeat of the recent controversy, which has cost the district “nearly $1 million in legal fees and expenses.”
The measures, passed unanimously by the school board at its monthly meeting, spell out in detail when, how, and for what reasons school officials can access or monitor the laptops they will give to each of the district’s nearly 2,300 high school students next month.
The measures require students and their parents to acknowledge the policies and consent in writing to any tracking, or give them an option to not participate in the laptop program. They also mandate expanded training about privacy and technology for teachers and staff, and will include information sessions for parents.
The new policies, recommended by a task force of students, parents, administrators, and community members, met one of the provisions of a federal court injunction signed in May by U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois. Besides banning any unauthorized webcam monitoring, the judge ordered the district to enact expansive, transparent policies before the school year opens in September. [...]
One policy requires the superintendent to devise and implement new procedures and establish staff training on the use and access of student laptops. Another says school employees will remotely access a student laptop only with written consent from students and/or their parents or guardians. [...]
Lower Merion has acknowledged that at least 40 high school students were inadvertently photographed by their laptop webcams in the last two years – typically after reporting their computers lost or stolen – but has said its internal investigation found no evidence of spying.
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