Theater of the absurdThe Philadelphia Story, cont.

Published 19 April 2010

Hidden Webcam attached to laptops given to Lower Merion School District high school students as loaners caught pictures of these students sleeping, half naked, and in other intimate moments; viewing the images was like watching “a little LMSD soap opera,” one of the school district employees who administered the laptops said, referring to the initials of the school district; “I know, I love it!” technology coordinator Carol Cafiero replied

A suburban Philadelphia school district secretly captured thousands of images of students in their homes, sometimes as they slept or were partially undressed, according to documents filed in federal court. Using a system to track lost or stolen laptops, officials from the Lower Merion School District also covertly conducted surveillance of students as they used their school-issued Macs, logging online chats and taking screenshots of websites they visited, according to the documents (see “The Philadelphia Story: School’s Loaner Laptops Spy on Students,” 26 February 2010 HSNW).

Dan Goodin writes that the allegations came to light in a lawsuit filed by the family of Blake Robbins, which argues that the LANrev software illegally invaded his privacy. The family first learned of the surveillance in November when an assistant principal confronted the 15-year-old high school sophomore with a picture of him that was taken by the tracking software.

The image, Robbins has said, showed him with a handful of Mike and Ike candies that the principal had mistaken for illegal pills.

Robbins’ $1,000 laptop was not believed to be missing, so the theft-tracking software never should have been activated, his attorney has argued. School officials told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the software was turned on because Robbins’ family had failed to pay a $55 insurance fee to cover the laptop, so he was not authorized to take it home. They also say there is no evidence to indicate school employees used any of the images inappropriately.

Still, the district acknowledged that the software has been activated forty-two times since September and an undisclosed number of times the previous year. They have yet to say how many students were photographed or monitored.

According to documents filed by the Robbins’ attorney on Thursday, more than 400 images were secretly snapped of Blake, some while he was sleeping or partially undressed. “Thousands of Webcam pictures and screenshots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes, many of which never reported their laptops lost or missing,” the filing added.

The motion went on to recite the e-mail exchange between two district employees who administered the laptops. Viewing the images was like watching “a little LMSD soap opera,” one of them said, referring to the initials of the school district. “I know, I love it!” technology coordinator Carol Cafiero replied.

Much more from the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Associated Press is here and here. Additional details about the school district’s use of LANrev are here.