School-Issued Laptops Took Pics, Screenshots of Students While Admins Watched

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A motion filed in a lawsuit against the Lower Merion (PA) School District for privacy violations indicate that school administrators secretly watched their students’ activities, saw candid webcam snapshots of them, and could view which Web sites they visited—and that doing so was like “a little LMSD soap opera.”

The lawsuit, filed in February, accuses the school district of illegally monitoring students through webcams and software installed in school-issued laptop computers. The tracking software not only kept a record of Web sites and online activity, but also took a picture with its webcam every fifteen minutes while the computer was on.

Filed on Friday, the motion says that in two weeks, the tracking system captured over 400 screenshots and photos from the computer used by Blake Robbins—a 15-year-old whose parents, Michael and Holly, filed the lawsuit. Some of the pictures were of Robbins asleep and partially undressed, while others included his family members. The motion also said that Carol Cafiero, the administrator in charge of the program, responded to one staffer’s comparison of watching these images to watching a “soap opera” by writing in an email, “I know, I love it.”

Cafiero is being called a voyeur by the Robbins family, who maintains that she also viewed some of the pictures on her home computer, then refused to turn the computer over to authorities despite a court order.

The school district claims that the tracking software allows them to locate the computers if they are missing or stolen, and that Robbins was not authorized to take the Apple MacBook home since he had not paid the $55 insurance fee.

Robbins and his family first became aware that he was being photographed by the computer when a school official confronted him with one of the images. In it, Robbins had a handful of pink and white Mike and Ike brand candies, which the school mistook for illegal drugs.

A representative for the school district acknowledged that the tracking software had been activated a number of times during this school year and the previous one, but declined to say how many students may have been monitored. The motion filed by the Robbins family claims that “thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes,” but exact numbers remain unclear.

Federal and county authorities are investigating whether or not the laptop security problem violated privacy laws. Meanwhile, Senator Arlen Specter (D., PA) has called for legislation to prevent this sort of unauthorized surveillance, which he says occurred because of a loophole in federal wiretap laws.

Cafiero has been placed on paid leave, and the controversial tracking program has since been disabled.

 

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