Laptop tracking programme goes awry


  • Technology
  • Monday, 19 Apr 2010

PHILADELPHIA: A suburban school district here snapped secret webcam pictures of a high school student when he was partially undressed or sleeping in his bed, and captured instant messages he exchanged with friends, the student charged in court papers.

The Lower Merion School District concedes its efforts to find missing school-issued laptops was misguided, and officials vowed anew on Friday to release the findings of their internal investigation, “good and bad.”

The LANrev software took screenshots and webcam photos every 15 seconds when activated. The district thereby captured over 400 screenshots and webcam images of Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins, according to court filings last week in his lawsuit.

The suit, filed in February, exposed the tracking software and prompted an FBI investigation into possible wiretap violations, along with debate among parents about whether to support the potential class-action lawsuit.

“A substantial number of webcam photos have been recovered in the investigation,” school board President David Ebby said in a statement Friday. “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.”

Lawyers involved in the case met on Friday afternoon to discuss pending issues in the case.

Misuse

Mark Haltzman, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Robbins and his family, said evidence now shows the district used the tracking software for non-authorised reasons — for instance, when students failed to pay the required insurance or return the laptops at year’s end. At least once, a name mix-up led the district to activate the wrong student’s laptop, he charged.

According to Haltzman, technology co-ordinator Carol Cafiero refused to answer his questions at a recent deposition, citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination. She and technician Michael Perbix were the only employees authorised to activate the webcams. Perbix did not fight the deposition.

Haltzman called Cafiero a possible “voyeur” and wants access to her personal computer to see if she downloaded any student images. To support the charge, he cited her response to an e-mail from a colleague who said viewing the webcam pictures was like watching a “soap opera.”

“I know, I love it!” Cafiero allegedly replied.

Her lawyer, Charles Mandracchia, did not immediately return a message on Friday, but has said his client did nothing wrong.

Despite widespread concern about the alleged spying, hundreds of parents have signed on to oppose the Robbins family’s suit for financial and other reasons. The district, meanwhile, insists it has no evidence of any intentional misuse of the tracking software.

Meanwhile, Democratic US Sen. Arlen Specter introduced a bill on Thursday to treat video surveillance the same as electronic communication under the federal Wiretap Act. — AP

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