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Published: Monday, 5/3/2010

Picture this

LAST November, an assistant principal at a suburban Philadelphia high school confronted a student with a photo that allegedly showed him engaged in an illegal act in his home.

The student disputed the accusation that he was popping pills. He was eating candy, he insisted.

Still, the photo was "evidence" of something fishy. The school had surreptitiously taken 400 pictures of the student by using the remote Webcam on his laptop computer. The student sued the school district for invasion of privacy.

Since then, families have learned that tracking software was installed in all 2,300 school-issued laptops and that the Webcams could be activated remotely. The cameras were turned on 146 times during two school years. An astounding 56,000 images were captured by dozens of laptops.

The students were never told that their school-issued laptops could spy on them at home. In theory, the tracking software and remote Webcams were supposed to be activated only in cases where the laptops were lost or stolen, the school district said. But even after lost or stolen laptops were found, the Webcams continued to send photos to the district.

The student believes his laptop's Webcam was activated because he failed to pay a $55 insurance fee required by the school. If he hadn't been confronted by the assistant principal, the surveillance might have continued indefinitely and the community would have been none the wiser.

The fact that none of the 56,000 images in the possession of the school was "salacious or inappropriate," according to the district's attorney, is beside the point. Schools have no business or jurisdiction in the homes of students.

The fact that the school district so badly bungled its own guidelines is a lesson that it should never have been in the business of surveillance in the first place.

Tough laws are needed to prevent any school district from venturing down this path again.

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