Sunday, April 25, 2010

Shocking Pa. School Spy-Cam Scandal Continues

There were more twists Friday in the laptop Web-cam scandal at Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania.

Carol Cafiero, the district administrator who has come under fire because she had the ability to activate the webcams, has agreed to turn over her own personal computer to investigators, who reportedly want to know if she activated the software at home.

A preliminary investigation has turned up a whopping 56,000 Web-cam photos and screenshots taken remotely from student-issued laptops, including one that has been released of sleeping Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins, now 16, whose family brought the civil lawsuit that resulted in the shocking disclosures.

Cafiero had previously refused to give a deposition in that lawsuit asserting her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

School officials have said they activated the tracking system – which shot Web-cam photos, snapped an image of the laptop screen, and identified the machine's location through an Internet address – only when a school-issued laptop was lost, stolen, or, as in Robbins' case, taken home without payment of a required $55 insurance fee. They have said they activated the system 42 times during this school year and a number of times last year.

On Friday, school officials declined to elaborate on what District Board President David Ebby meant by "a substantial number" of photos being amassed, or to address Robbins' contention that the Web-cam on his school-issued laptop snapped at least one photo when he was partially undressed. The district's investigation is expected to conclude May 3.

"We do not feel it is appropriate for anyone other than the investigators to dictate the timing of the investigation and the release of complete findings," Ebby said. "As we have made clear since Day One, we are committed to providing all of the facts – good and bad – at the conclusion of the investigation."

In his latest motion, the Robbins family's attorney, Mark S. Haltzman, said that during two weeks in the fall, the tracking system on the Apple MacBook that Robbins took home captured more than 400 images of the then 15-year-old and his family members – including shots of Blake asleep in bed.

Cafiero (above) is one of two Lower Merion School District employees able to enable the remote tracking feature on the LANRev software. When activated, the software tracks a user's IP address and takes Web-cam photos and desktop screenshots from the computers.

But Cafiero says while she was the one who flipped the switch, there was never any spying.

"At no time did I ever independently, without authorization, turn on the Web-cam technology," Cafiero said. "At no time did I ever spy on students."

The information systems coordinator and her coworker, network technician Michael Perbix, would get direction from higher administrators to enable the software to find only lost and stolen machines, said Cafiero's attorney Charles Mandracchia.

"They didn't sit around for hours looking for pictures," he said. "They didn't sit around for seconds looking at pictures."

However, those recorded photos were able to be accessed by a number of staffers – even those not authorized to have the feature turned on, Mandracchia said.

In most of the cases, technicians turned on the system after a student or staffer reported a laptop missing and turned it off when the machine was found, the investigators determined.

But in at least five instances, school employees let the Web-cams keep clicking for days or weeks after students found their missing laptops, according to the review. Those computers – programmed to snap a photo and capture a screen shot every 15 minutes when the machine was on – fired nearly 13,000 images back to the school district servers.

The data, provided to the media last week by a school district lawyer, represents the most detailed account yet of how and when Lower Merion used the remote tracking system, a practice that has also sparked a FBI investigation and new federal legislation.

On Friday the district's attorney, Henry Hockeimer, declined to describe in detail any of the recovered Web-cam photos, or identify the people in them or their surroundings. He said none appeared to show "salacious or inappropriate" images but said that in no way justified the use of the program.

"The taking of these pictures without student consent in their homes was obviously wrong," Hockeimer said.

District officials have said that the 56,000 images were recorded from 80 of 1,800 school-issued notebook computers over a two-year period. The large majority of the images captured were ambient in nature, officials said. But there were as many as 68 photos that included students, Mandracchia said.

"I understand people should be very upset they took 56,000 images. That’s 56 and three zeros," Mandracchia said.

The attorney and his client pointed their fingers at the Lower Merion School District's poor management of the feature as a source for so much ire.

"The policy was loose and the policy should've been handled differently. But with that said the policy was not to spy on students," Mandracchia said.

Mandracchia said his client invoked her Fifth Amendment protections only because he had wanted her to answer questions from FBI agents before submitting to lawyers' queries in the civil suit. She met with the FBI agents last week.

"We wanted to determine exactly where the FBI was going," Mandracchia said. "Based on that interview, I feel confident that they're not looking at her because she did anything criminal."

The judge presiding over the civil case, U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois, on Friday denied a motion by Haltzman to have Cafiero's computer seized, but her lawyer agreed to provide it for analysis anyway. Mandracchia, said they're doing so because his client has nothing to hide.

In the motion, Haltzman argued that the now-disabled system had surreptitiously collected more than 400 photos of Robbins – including shots of him when he was shirtless and while he slept in his bed last fall – as well as thousands of images from other students' computers.

Also on Friday, U.S. Attorney Michael Levy sent a letter asking DuBois to allow FBI agents to start analyzing the district's computers and the photos that they had collected. Previously, the judge had ruled that only lawyers for Robbins and the school district should review the evidence.

Robbins alleges that the district watched him sleeping and partially dressed. Haltzman provided one of the photos alleged to have been snapped on the secret Web-cam software to the media last week, and is the image that appears directly above.

(Note: Specifically, the above photo of Robbins was allegedly taken surreptitiously by the Lower Merion School District through a laptop Web-camera while he was sleeping at home at 5 p.m. on Oct 26.)

The Robbins suit alleges that the district invaded his privacy, violated his civil rights, and broke wiretapping and other laws when it secretly activated the Web-cam.

Robbins and his parents, who are residents of Penn Valley, filed the suit in February. That suit first drew attention to the laptop-tracking system, and triggered an investigation by school officials – as well as a federal investigation into whether wiretap and privacy laws had been violated.

Recent legal motions in the civil case brought the case to the attention of the media.

Mandracchia said his client only used her home computer one time several years ago to deal with a situation involving stolen laptops with the district.

"She has not used her personal computer to access work stuff. She has a laptop computer that the district issued to her that she took home and the work that she did, she did off that laptop," Mandracchia said.

Meanwhile, wearied by the national and even international attention caused by the suit, a group of Lower Merion parents asked the judge Friday to ban lawyers and other parties in the case from giving interviews near district schools or students' homes.

"We and many other parents of Lower Merion School District are outraged by the substantial distraction that the recent media frenzy has visited upon our district and our community," the parents group wrote to DuBois.

In a motion, Haltzman wrote that Cafiero "may be a voyeur," and cited excerpts of e-mails between her and a school district technician in which both seemed to marvel over the new tracking technology. It was "like a little LMSD soap opera," the technician e-mailed Cafiero, who replied, "I know, I love it," according to the motion.

Haltzman's comments elicited strong and immediate responses from Cafiero and Mandracchia.

"I'm not a voyeur," Cafiero said. "The allegations made by Mr. Haltzman against me are completely false, outrageous and for the sole purpose of inflaming me to the public."

In fact, Cafiero said she will report Haltzman to the Pennsylvania Bar Association Disciplinary Board.

Mandracchia called Haltzman’s motion "a scandalous, malicious and abusive attack" on his client, claiming Cafiero never viewed any of the Web-cam photos from home, and had only turned the system on when asked or authorized to do so by other district officials. Mandracchia added that no photos were ever downloaded to Cafiero's hard drive.

Mandracchia also said the e-mail excerpts Haltzman cited were taken out of context and concerned legitimate efforts in September 2008 to track down six laptops stolen from the Harriton High gym.

Mandracchia said the e-mail exchange between Cafiero and the employee, Amanda Wuest, took place more than a year before the district activated the tracking system on Robbins' computer. The attorney provided the media with a copy of what he said was the entire exchange, dated Sept. 19, 2008.

The copy appears to show that the two women were responding to a report from four students that a laptop was missing from a Harriton High gym. Officials first checked surveillance cameras in the building but saw nothing suspicious, according to the e-mail.

Referring to the tracking program's tools, Wuest wrote back to Cafiero: "Hopefully, if they were taken, we'll get some screen captures/pictures over the weekend."

On Friday, DuBois rejected Haltzman's request for an order compelling Cafiero to turn over her computer or face sanctions. The two sides then struck their tentative deal. DuBois did not immediately rule on Friday’s request from the parents group.

Haltzman acknowledged an agreement had been reached but otherwise declined to discuss it.

According to Mandracchia, Cafiero will turn over her home computer to experts at L3, a computer-forensics firm hired by the district, who are to inspect it by Tuesday. Mandracchia said the experts and the judge would determine whether any of the computer's contents were relevant enough to turn over to Haltzman.

The district has put Cafiero and Perbix on paid leave while the internal investigation by L3 and lawyers from the firm Ballard Spahr L.L.P. is under way.

Also on Friday, Haltzman confirmed that Cafiero has now agreed to sit for another deposition, during which she plans to fully answer all questions.

Lower Merion began using the system after deciding to give each of its nearly 2,300 high school students their own laptop computer. The program started in 2008 at Harriton High School and expanded this school year to Lower Merion High.

In addition to the photos and screen shots, the technology also used the laptop's Internet address to pinpoint its location. The system was designed to automatically purge all the images after the tracking was deactivated.

Hockeimer said that attorneys from his firm, Ballard Spahr, and specialists from L3, a computer forensics firm, have used e-mails, voice mails and network data to piece together how often, when and why school officials used the technology.

The "vast majority" of instances, he said, represent cases in which the technology appeared to be used for the reasons the district first implemented it in 2008: to find a lost or stolen laptop or, in a few cases, whether a student took the computer without paying a required insurance fee.

About 38,500 images – or almost two-thirds of the total number retrieved so far – came from six laptops that were reported missing from the Harriton High School gymnasium in September 2008. The tracking system continued to store images from those computers for nearly six months, until police recovered them and charged a suspect with theft in March 2009.

The next biggest chunk of images stem from the five or so laptops where employees failed or forgot to turn off the tracking software even after the student recovered the computer.

In a few other cases, Hockeimer said, the team has been unable to recover images or photos stored by the tracking system.

And in about 15 activations, investigators have been unable to identify exactly why a student's laptop was being monitored.

Hockeimer said that the investigation found that administrators activated the tracking system for just one student this year who failed to pay the $55 insurance fee.

Robbins claims he is that student; Hockeimer declined to confirm or deny that.

But, Robbins has claimed that an assistant principal confronted him in November with a Web cam photo of him in his bedroom. Robbins said the photo shows him with a handful of Mike & Ike candies, but that the assistant principal thought they were drugs.

Haltzman, greeted the release of the numbers and break down of the Web-cam photographs skeptically.

"I wish the school district would have come clean earlier, as soon as they had this information and not waiting until something was filed in court revealing the extent of the spying," he said.

About 10 employees at the district and its two high schools had the authority to request the computer administrators to activate the tracking system on a student's laptop, Hockeimer said.

Hockeimer said the district investigators have no evidence to suggest either Cafiero or Perbix activated the system without being asked.

But the requests were loose and disorganized, he said, sometimes amounting to just a brief e-mail.

"The whole situation was riddled with the problem of not having any written policies and procedures in place," Hockeimer said. "And that impacted so much of what happened here."

In his strongest terms since the furor began, board president Ebby said district officials, "deeply regret the mistakes and misguided actions" that have given rise to the lawsuit, federal criminal inquiry, the call for new privacy legislation, and the wave of mounting publicity.

But Ebby alleged that Lower Merion's continuing internal investigation has found no evidence that its employees used the technology for "inappropriate" purposes."

"We are committed to disclosing fully what happened, correcting our mistakes, and making sure that they do not happen again," he said in a statement addressed to parents and guardians and posted on the district's Web site.

Ebby also said the school district planned to enlist Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter to oversee the contacting of parents and showing them the photos.

"During that process, the privacy of all students will be strongly protected," the board president said in his statement.


Clearly, clearly, this ugly incident underscores how the uncontrolled use of technology can harm victims, regardless of an intent to do so. Privacy concerns based on the use of new technologies have been raised long before this incident came to light. The government MUST address these issues NOW. It is, afterall, the primary responsibility of government to protect its citizens. The outrageous violations of the privacy of JUVENILES by their own school district for heaven’s sake, should serve as a serious wake up call regarding this topic. Legislation limiting the use of this type of spying technology must be adopted – and as soon as possible!

— The Curator

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