INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The system that Lower Merion school officials used to track lost and stolen laptops wound up secretly capturing thousands of images, including photographs of students in their homes, Web sites they visited, and excerpts of their online chats, says a new motion filed in a suit against the district.
More than once, the motion asserts, the camera on Robbins’ school-issued laptop took photos of Robbins as he slept in his bed. Each time, it fired the images off to network servers at the school district.
Back at district offices, the Robbins motion says, employees with access to the images marveled at the tracking software. It was like a window into “a little LMSD soap opera,” a staffer is quoted as saying in an e-mail to Carol Cafiero, the administrator running the program.
“I know, I love it,” she is quoted as having replied.
Those details, disclosed in the motion filed late Thursday in federal court by Robbins’ attorney, offer a wider glimpse into the now-disabled program that spawned Robbins’ lawsuit and has shined an international spotlight on the district.
In the filing, the Penn Valley family claims the district’s records show that the controversial tracking system captured more than 400 photos and screen images from 15-year-old Blake Robbins’ school-issued laptop during two weeks last fall, and that “thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes.”
Robbins, a sophomore at Harriton High School, and his parents, Michael and Holly Robbins, contend e-mails turned over to them by the district suggest Cafiero “may be a voyeur” who might have viewed some of the photos on her home computer.
The motion says Cafiero, who has been placed on paid leave, has failed to turn that computer over to the plaintiffs despite a court order to do so, and asks a judge to sanction her.
Cafiero’s lawyer Thursday night disputed the suggestion that his client had downloaded any such photos to her home computer. Lawyer Charles Mandracchia said Cafiero has cooperated with federal investigators and is willing to let technicians hired by the district examine her computer if the judge so orders.
He also said Robbins’ attorney had never asked him for Cafiero’s personal computer. “He’s making this up because his case is falling apart,” Mandracchia said.
Since the Robbinses sued in February, district officials have acknowledged that they activated the theft-tracking software on school-issued laptops 42 times since September, and a number of times in the previous school year – all in order to retrieve lost or stolen computers.
But they have stopped short of specifying how many students may have been photographed and monitored, or how often – information that could shed light on whether Robbins’ experience was unique or common.
An attorney for the district declined to comment last night on the Robbinses’ latest motion, except to say that a report due in a few weeks will spell out what the district’s own investigation has found.
“To the extent there is any evidence of misuse of any images, that also will be disclosed,” said the attorney, former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. “However, at this late stage of our investigation we are not aware of any such evidence.”
The Robbinses’ lawyer, Mark S. Haltzman, said the new details emerged in tens of thousands of pages of documents and e-mails the district turned over to him in recent weeks.
Three district employees have also given sworn depositions in the suit. A fourth, Cafiero, declined to answer Haltzman’s questions, asserting her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
According to the latest filing by the Robbinses, officials first activated the tracking software on a school-issued Apple MacBook that Robbins took home on Oct. 20.
Hundreds of times in the next two weeks, the filing says, the program did its job each time it was turned on: A tiny camera atop the laptop snapped a photo, software inside copied the laptop screen image, and a locating device recorded the Internet address – something that could help district technicians pinpoint where the machine was.
The system was designed to take a new picture every 15 minutes until it was turned off.
The material disclosed by the district contains hundreds of photos of Robbins and his family members – “including pictures of Blake partially undressed and of Blake sleeping,” the motion states.
Through Haltzman, the Robbinses last night gave The Inquirer a photo they said was among the Web cam images turned over by school officials. The picture shows Blake asleep in bed at 5 p.m. last Oct. 26, the lawyer said.
Robbins and his parents say they first learned of the technology on Nov. 11, when an assistant Harriton principal confronted the teen with an image collected by the tracking software.
Robbins has said one image showed him with a handful of Mike and Ike candies – which the administrator thought were illegal pills.
The family’s lawyers have argued that neither Blake nor many of the other students whose laptop cameras were activated had reported those laptops missing or stolen. According to the motion, an unspecified number of laptops were being tracked because students had failed to return computers or pay a required insurance fee.
The district has said it turned on the camera in Robbins’ computer because his family had not paid the $55 insurance fee and he was not authorized to take the laptop home.
U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois has ordered all parties in the case to meet by Tuesday, the latest step toward a settlement. Meanwhile, federal and county investigators are examining whether the laptop security program violated any laws.
Also Thursday, Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) introduced legislation to close what he said was a loophole in federal wiretap laws and prevent unauthorized monitoring. Specter recently held a hearing in Philadelphia on the issue.
“Many of us expect to be subject to certain kinds of video surveillance when we leave our homes and go out each day – at the ATM, at traffic lights, or in stores, for example,” Specter, who is running for reelection, said on the floor of the Senate. “What we do not expect is to be under visual surveillance in our homes, in our bedrooms and, most especially, we do not expect it for our children in our homes.”
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