Internet Law

Filing: School District Took Thousands of Pics of Students at Home Via Laptop Webcams

When news broke in February that an upscale suburban Philadelphia school district had been accused of spying on students at home via remotely activated webcams on their district-issued laptop computers, officials said the webcams were only activated if a computer had been reported missing or stolen.

But that wasn’t true, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the February suit, parents Michael and Holly Robbins, say in a federal court filing last Thursday, reports the Threat Level blog of Wired.

“Discovery to date has now revealed that thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots … have been taken from numerous other students in their homes, many of which never reported their laptops lost or missing,” writes their attorney, Mark Haltzman.

The computers took photos of students in bed, even partially dressed, and captured their online chats and kept a records of the websites they visited, the filing contends. The webcam system was deactivated in February, after the Robbins parents filed suit on behalf of their son, Blake, a sophomore in the Lower Merion School District. Their suit also seeks class action status on behalf of the district’s approximately 2,300 students.

The filing contends that the webcam spying came to light after Blake Robbins was reprimanded at school for his behavior at home, based on photos secretly taken on his computer. Reportedly, he was accused of taking pills; his family says he was eating Mike and Ike candy. Allegedly, nearly 400 images of the sophomore were captured in two weeks last fall, reports Threat Level.

The blog post doesn’t include any comment from the school district. However, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the school board president confirmed Friday that investigators had obtained “a substantial number” of secret photos of high school students.

David Ebby said parents would be allowed to view the photos in private and stated that district officials “deeply regret the mistakes and misguided actions” underlying the suit. “We are committed to disclosing fully what happened, correcting our mistakes, and making sure that they do not happen again,” he says in a statement on the district’s website, while maintaining that the district’s internal investigation has found no evidence employees used webcams for inappropriate purposes.

The FBI is also pursuing a probe.

The plaintiffs’ filing last week seeks a court order to make a forensic examination of the personal computer of a school administrator, Carol Cafiero. She is represented by attorney Charles Mandracchia, who says she is eager to cooperate.

“Carol Cafiero did not look at any Blake Robbins pictures—not one,” Mandracchia tells the newspaper. “The only time she would ever go in [to the system] was if someone asked her to or directed her to—and it was only two or three times.”

School officials say photos were snapped remotely from Robbins’ computer because it was taken home prior to the payment of a requisite insurance fee of $55, the Inquirer reports.

As detailed in a subsequent post, an internal district investigation has concluded that nearly 56,000 webcam images were recorded. However, most were taken in search of lost or stolen laptops and, an attorney representing the district says, none were salacious or similarly inappropriate.

Additional coverage: “Suit Says School Spied on Student at Home Via Laptop Webcam, Seeks Class Action Status” “Accused of Spying on Student at Home Via School Laptop, District Says It Didn’t” “School District in Laptop-Spying Case Ordered to Shut Off Webcams”

Discover: “School Spying Case: School Accused of Taking Thousands of Webcam Photos”

PC World: “School Admin Takes Fifth Amendment in “Peeping Tom” Case”’

Last updated on April 20 to include information from subsequent post.

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