Spying defies belief

What is it about large organizations that make it easy for them to lose their collective minds? It seems that the news is full of cases of this kind of lunacy that defy belief.

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By way of an example, I just read about how Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania, through state and federal grants, was able to supply something like 1,800 high school students in the district with laptops. Fantastic! That's the kind of initiative that more schools and school districts should be undertaking.

But it turns out that somewhere on the administrative side of the district someone had what they thought was a good idea. This good idea consisted of adding software to the laptops that would allow school and administrative staff to spy on students using (and I'm not making this up) the laptop's Web cams! This meant that, any time the laptops were running and whether the students were at school or at home, someone could see, hear and record what the student was doing. Let me underline that: At any time.

First, you have to wonder how the district's administrators came to conceive of this program. This district is not in some hick, back water where no one would understand the issue; the two high schools in the district are in wealthy neighborhoods with the kind of families that, should they feel so moved, have the knowledge and resources to take people to court for things like violation of privacy. So even the most naïve administrative wonk should have thought twice about this program but, no, obviously that didn't happen.

Next, you have to marvel at the people who were tasked with making this program work. Someone in authority had to have said to someone in IT, "We want to spy on students through their new laptops … how are we going to do this?"

At this point, wouldn't you have thought the IT person might have said, "Guys, do you understand what you're asking? Do you understand that it is illegal?" That's what you'd think but, again, obviously that didn't happen.

Now, it's possible the IT person was out of the loop on this one, so it might be that the whole thing was on a "need to know" basis and only a few staff were in on the scheme, but I doubt it. What makes me doubt it is the program came to light when an assistant principal confronted a student with an accusation of "improper behavior" and produced a Webcam image in evidence.

Exactly what the "improper behavior" was hasn't been revealed, but the big brother overtones are obvious as is the violation of privacy involved.

In the annals of dumb organizational moves, this has to rank up there with Apple last year approving the iPhone application "Baby Shaker" for the App Store while turning down scores of other apps for undisclosed reasons. Or how about one of my favorites, All Nippon Airways' "poo before you go" program, an effort to get passengers to relieve themselves prior to departure to lighten the load and save fuel.

These were ill-conceived, badly handled, and the organizations should have known better, and Lower Merion School District is right up there with them.

The result of this idiocy? A class action suit on the behalf of students against the school district and its board of directors. Maybe that will help shed some light on why no one considered the implications of the spying program and if they did, why they didn't speak up. It defies belief.

Gibbs can hardly believe it in Ventura, Calif. Are you as amazed? Tell backspin@gibbs.com.

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This story, "Spying defies belief" was originally published by Network World.

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