Students to see photos snapped in US school 'spying' case

Judge lets students view the nearly 58,000 images before parents get their chance

Students in two suburban Philadelphia high schools will be allowed to view photographs taken by their school-issued laptops, and may preview them first before deciding which images their parents may see, according to a court order issued Friday.

In the order, U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter said that certified letters would be sent to students who had been photographed when their Apple MacBooks' cameras had been activated by IT personnel of Lower Merion School District.

Lower Merion was sued in mid-February by Michael and Holly Robbins, and their teenage son Blake, a high school student at Harriton High School, after an assistant principal accused Blake of selling drugs and taking pills, and used a snapshot taken by his computer as evidence. Robbins claimed the pictures showed him eating candy.

The district took more than 30,000 photographs using the students' Webcams, and another 27,000 screenshots using software designed to track lost, missing or stolen laptops, according to a report commissioned by Lower Merion.

That report laid most of the blame on the district's IT staff for the excessive photo taking using its LANrev software.

According to the report, 76 different student laptops were told to capture photographs and screenshots in the last two school years.

The letters, which will also be mailed to affected students' parents or guardians, will indicate the date of Webcam activations, and the number of photographs and screenshots taken by each student's computer.

But the teenagers will be shown the images before parents.

"We are sending a notice similar to this one to your parents/guardians," Rueter's proposed letter read. "The District would like to give them an opportunity to view the images as well. But, you will be able to look at the images without your parent(s)/guardian(s) first, and if there are any image that you do not want them to see, you may let Judge Rueter know, and he will discuss with you how to handle the situation."

If the photographs or screenshots contain private information from others beside the student, the court will take steps to protect their interests, the letter added.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com .

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Knowledge Center.

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Gregg Keizer

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