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Laptop Spy Scandal Administrator Just "Loved" Violating Students' Fourth Amendment Rights

from the surveillance-state-soap-opera dept

Earlier this year a school outside of Philadelphia was busted giving students laptops that included hidden software that covertly allowed school officials to turn on the cameras and monitor the students — no matter where they were. The not-so-brilliant scheme came to light when one child was disciplined for behavior that was only captured thanks to these laptops. Not surprisingly, a fairly huge scandal was born, followed by a lawsuit against the school district. The school district has long claimed that the surveillance system was only used to locate missing laptops. But a new motion (pdf) filed as part of the lawsuit now claims that not only were thousands of photos taken, many were taken of students who never reported their laptops missing. Meanwhile, the lawyer claims to have e-mails from the plan administrator (who has been pleading the fifth) highlighting how she was really having a great time watching student "soap operas" unfold:

"Back at district offices, the Robbins motion says, employees with access to the images marveled at the tracking software. It was like a window into "a little LMSD soap opera," a staffer is quoted as saying in an e-mail to Carol Cafiero, the administrator running the program. "I know, I love it," she is quoted as having replied."

One family involved in the suit provided evidence that their 15-year-old son was photographed more than 400 times over the course of two weeks last fall (his laptop was neither missing or stolen), but their lawyer provided just one surprisingly well lit and framed (for a laptop) photo taken of their son sleeping. The school district has subsequently issued a statement admitting the system took photos, but denying that they engaged in any deliberate wrong doing or that the photos were used for any "inappropriate purposes." Senator Arlen Specter, engaged in a heated battle for re-election, used the story as a springboard to call for tougher federal wiretap laws. Specter went so far as to hold a hearing near the school, where one parent insisted that warnings would be enough:

"Bob Wegbreit said a warning might suffice to let families know the district might activate webcams without a student's knowledge. Students could then choose to keep the computers in other parts of the house, instead of their bedrooms, said Wegbreit, whose group fears the lawsuit will damage the upscale district's finances and reputation."

It might be a little too late for that, Bob (besides, "warnings" don't trump that whole Fourth Amendment thing). Even if you could somehow argue the project didn't violate the Fourth Amendment, it remains mind boggling that anybody, at any level in the district, would think that off-site covert photography of students was a bright idea for any reason. As more and more schools offer kids laptops and netbooks, this case acts as a reminder to parents and students to ask questions as these kinds of programs are developed elsewhere. It's also a warning shot to administrators who think protecting their property (or personal amusement) trumps a student's right to privacy at home. You do start to wonder where people could possibly be getting the idea that surveillance with no recourse to law or common sense is a good idea.

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by Mark Silva

Vice President Joe Biden, addressing the European Parliament today in Brussels, urged lawmakers to embrace a U.S. Treasury plan for tracking the finances of potential terrrorists — and reiterated the Obama administration's commitment to cooperation as well.

The European Parliament has taken a tough stance on the collection of information about European Unnion citizens who fly to the United States or transfer money outside Europe under the American Treasury's Terrorist Finance Tracking Program.

Biden reminded his audience today of how information was used to prevent the accused Times Square bomber from leaving the U.S. on a flight to Dubai.

“We have disagreed before. We will surely disagree again,'' Biden told his Brussels audience today. “But I'm equally convinced that the United States and Europe can meet the challenges of the 21st Century, as we did in the 20th century if we talk and listen to one another, if we are honest with one another.''

The Parliament in February rejected an interim deal to share bank data with the U.S., which, as it is reported across the pond, “came as a surprise to U.S. officials who had launched an unprecedented lobbying campaign to convince (members of the European Parliament) not to vote against the deal. The Parliament also on Wednesday postponed a vote on a new EU-US accord on the transfer of so-called passenger name records – personal information collected on each airline passenger that flies to the US.'' The MEPs “fear the accords do not comply with EU citizens' data protection rights.''

“President Obama and I also believe that governments' primary and most fundamental and most solemn duty is to protect its citizens, the citizens it serves, as well as the rights they hold,'' Biden told his audience in Brussels today. “President Obama has said that keeping our country safe is the first thing he thinks about when he wakes up in the morning and the last thing he thinks about before he goes to bed at night. I suspect that is how every world leader looks at their role.

“Indeed, no less than privacy, physical safety is also an inalienable right — physical safety is also an inalienable right. And a government that abdicates its duty to ensure the safety of its citizens violates their rights no less than a government that silences dissidents or imprisons accused criminals without trial.

“And so, folks, even — even as we gather here today, our enemies are employing every tool they can muster to conduct new and devastating attacks like the ones that struck New York, London, Madrid, and many other places around the globe.''

(Vice President Joe Biden addresses the European Parliament at EU headquarters in Brussels. Photo by AFP / Getty Images).

“To stop them,'' Biden told the Parliament, “we must use every legitimate tool available — law enforcement, military, intelligence, technology — that's consistent with our principles, our laws, and our values. We're fighting on many fronts, from the brave men and women serving abroad in our militaries to the patient and tireless law enforcement professionals investigating complex and suspicious financial networks.

“Just this week, our Customs and Border Protection — using passenger information data — apprehended a suspect in the attempted bombing of New York's Times Square, as he sought to flee the country,'' he said. “It is vital that we maintain every capacity we have under the law to stop such attacks.

“And for that reason, we believe that the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program is essential to our security, as well as to yours — presumptive of me to say. It has provided critical leads to counterterrorism investigations on both sides of the Atlantic — disrupting plots and ultimately saving lives. It is built — it has built-in redundancies that ensure personal information is respected and used only for counterterrorism purposes. But I don't blame you for questioning it.

“We understand your concerns,'' said Biden, who called himself a 36-year member of Washington's own “Parliament….. “As a consequence, we are working together to address them and I'm absolutely confident that we can succeed, to both use the tool and guarantee privacy. It's important that we do so, and it's important that we do so as quickly as possible.

“As a former United States senator, I also know how hard it can be to make the hard choices required by global challenges, while staying true to local values. All of you are going through that every time you vote in this Parliament, I suspect,'' he said. “The longer we are without an agreement on the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, the greater the risk of a terrorist attack that could have been prevented. As leaders, we share a responsibility to do everything we can within the law to protect the 800 million people we collectively serve.

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