Don’t mess with US lawyers. They advertise on TV as often as breakfast cereal companies might in other countries. And every American has one, or can get one if you cross them.

It now looks as if the Philadelphia (Lower Merion) webcam spying case was an example of well-intentioned security gone badly sour, but the financial costs of the whole episode stand as a warning to anyone using remote monitoring for security purposes.

It turns out that the school district involved in the case, in which school pupils were allegedly spied on via webcam, is being asked to pay one lawyer’s interim fees of $418,000, on top of accumulated legal expenses of $780,000 as of June.

That’s over a million dollars for a school district at a time of great financial hardship to many urban school districts in the US, not to mention the tax-payers that have to support them very directly. And that’s before the possible damages related to a wider class action are considered.  

The reason? Apple laptops handed out to pupils by a high school allowed admins to turn on and take pictures remotely using LANrev software, infringing the privacy of pupils. Allegedly, this happened 58,000 times while the monitoring policy was in place, although over half of these were taken simply because the monitoring software had not been turned off.

The actual number of laptops affected was 76, and no evidence has ever been produced to show that  the images were in any way inappropriate beyond the fact that remote monitoring using images can clash with laws over privacy. However, action, not intention, cuts no ice where the law is concerned.

If the class action is successful, you could see webcams being disabled on all school laptops across the US, not to forget the potentially huge costs to schools while the precise level of privacy infringement is argued over.

The case will change the way all sorts of organisations view the humble webcam, and inevitably some influence on the nature of privacy and remote monitoring with computer equipment. It might even set off a new fashion for better thought-out security policies in the public sector and beyond.

The lesson is that students have a fair right to privacy and a competent school district should fully communicate the way that remote monitoring will be used, if at all. There has to be a policy for security technology.

So far, this fact seems almost incidental, with the issue of money never far away from the headlines.  Let’s hope that by the time the money issue comes to be settled people will still be able to remember the more substantial arguments in play.