Another fine chapter in the book of “what were they thinking?” was brought to light by Blake J. Robbins. And what a chapter it is!

His school’s vice-principal disciplined Robbins’ son for “improper behaviour in his home,” according to a Boing Boing article. Setting aside the questionable jurisdiction the school has over what a student does at home, you might wonder how the vice-principal knew what Robbins’ son did at home. It turns out he had a photo of the unnamed transgression. How he got the photo is where things go beyond what you might think is ridiculous.

The Lower Merion School District issues laptops to its high-school students. These laptops have webcams. What the district seems to have failed to tell anyone is that they also installed spyware on the laptops so they can activate the cameras at will.

Mr. Robbins has filed a class-action lawsuit against the school district.

Since this story broke earlier this week, school district superintendent Christopher W. McGinley has issued a statement confirming the presence of the spyware, but denying any wrong-doing. In fact, they claim they installed the software so it could be activated if a laptop is stolen. They’ve also claimed to have disabled the spyware while investigating the issue.

I suspect things will not go well for the school board. They made no claim that Robbins’ son’s laptop was reported stolen. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the software was activated because of some mistake or misunderstanding. How on earth can anyone think it would be okay to take improperly obtained information and punish a student based on it? In the event of such an error, the information should have been immediately deleted.

But the district did not claim there was any error. The statement repeatedly claims the district takes privacy seriously, despite this event clearly disproving this claim.

The district made a mistake. A big mistake. Nothing in the superintendent’s statement begins to explain what really happened.