Philly in national news… totally breaks the law. Ah, modern tech. (From A in Portland)

WELL I’ve been meaning to find this story written up in a simple way… of course I read it in the City Paper (Philly’s free paper, although I am more a Philly Weekly fan from having worked there) at the bar in the airport when heading out the other day…..   the connects are as follows: its PHILADELPHIA, my stepmother Squeek was for many decades a music teacher in this very same school district, and also, as part of Jill’s job at the radio station she had to attempt to track down the family in question for a story after the broke.  All in all, it is insane.

If you’re like us — and we know you are becausewe’ve seen you in the shower — you spent last week wondering what in the holy hell is going on in Lower Merion Township, where school officials were accused of secretly spying on their students via Webcams in their district-issued laptops in a potential class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month. And like us, you’ve got more questions than answers.

Let’s take a moment to ponder the possibilities, shall we?

According to that lawsuit, on Nov. 11, a Harriton High School assistant principal “informed [student Blake Robbins] that the School District was of the belief that [he] was engaged in improper behavior in his home .” And how did they know that? The school administrator “cited as evidence a photograph from the Webcam embedded in [Robbins’] personal laptop issued by the School District,” the lawsuit says.

How did they get such a thing? “[The District], in fact, has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop computer … at any time it [chooses] and to view and capture whatever images [are] in front of the Webcam.”

Oh, boy. Before diving in, we should note that the district’s decision to supply each of its nearly 2,300 high school students with a MacBook, paid for by state grants, is exceedingly cool. That said … oh Lord, where to begin?

First, the official explanation: The Lower Merion School Districtposted a statement on its Web site Feb. 18, which did absolutely nothing to clear things up. The remote tracking software the district installed, according to the statement, was designed “to help locate a laptop in the event it was reportedlost, missing or stolenso that the laptop could be returned to the student. … Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the district’s security and technology departments.”

That feature, the district pledged, was never used for nefarious purposes, and it has since been deactivated.

Neither the Robbins family nor their attorneys returned our calls, but they did grant interviews to NBC 10 over the weekend. According to Blake Robbins, school officials believed that the photo Blake’s Webcam had snapped showed him popping illicit pills; he says those pills were Mike and Ike candy.

Again … oh, boy. District spokesman Douglas Young says this isn’t the first time the district used this security feature. In fact, officials have used it “a handful of times” — 42 times in 14 months, according to the Associated Press. Adds Young: “We only used it when a laptop was reported stolen, lost or missing.” Does that mean Blake stole the laptop (which the lawsuit claims was the one school officials issued him)? “I can’t refer to the specifics of the case, but I can say that the feature would not be activated unless it was reported stolen. A student or family member would have to report that it was stolen for us to use it.”

We’ll call that a yes. But aren’t there less problematic ways to track stolen laptops than a feature that could snap pictures of teenagers in various stages of undressin their homes? “That’s a good question. … I can say that the software feature isn’t just utilized in this school district. It’s utilized by other school districts and organizations.” (Offhand, he couldn’t name any.)According to NBC, other Lower Merion students have reported seeing their laptopWebcams activate at random. School officials reportedly told the students that this was a glitch.

Young says the district takes the allegations seriously, and calls it a “mistake” that parents weren’t told about the feature beforehand. “We recognize the concerns that are out there,” he says, “and we need to conduct a full review of the policies, procedures and process that made this happen. That being said, we intend to defend ourselves vigorously and intend to win.” Translation: “We didn’t do anything wrong, but we’re really sorry and we won’t do it again!”

Pity the spokespeople caught up in these messes.According to NBC, the FBI is investigating. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, federal prosecutors have issued subpoenas. According to A Million Stories, this saga of Main Line weirdness is going to get a lot weirder before it’s over.

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