School district spied on students at home as they slept: lawsuit

Lawsuit: School administrator ‘may be a voyeur’ who spied on kids for personal gratification

A Philadelphia-area school district secretly took “thousands” of webcam photos of students in their homes and tracked their Web site visits and parts of online chats through spy software installed on the students’ school-issued laptops, a Pennsylvania court heard yesterday.

In February, the family of Blake Robbins, a student at Harriton High School in Rosemont, sued the Lower Merion School District after the district admitted to them it had been spying on students via a remote-activated feature on the laptops it issued to all its 2,300 high school pupils.

In a motion filed in court on Thursday, Robbins’ lawyers asserted that the school district had taken at least 400 snapshots of 15-year-old Robbins, including some of him sleeping. The motion also stated that “thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

And in a strange twist to the story, the lawyers also suggested that Carol Cafiero, one of two school administrators with access to the spying technology, “may be a voyeur” who spied on students for her personal gratification, as some of the images taken by the laptops may have ended up on her personal computer.

The motion asks the judge to force Cafiero to turn over her home computer, which she has refused to do so far. Earlier this week, during a deposition, Cafiero pleaded the Fifth Amendment to all questions regarding her involvement in the alleged school spying.

Watching the students at home was like “a little [Lower Merion School District] soap opera,” said a staffer in an email obtained by Robbins’ lawyers.

“I know, I love it,” Cafiero responded in a reply email, as quoted at the Inquirer.

If true, the allegations against Cafiero would realize privacy advocates’ worst fears about the school district’s monitoring of students at home: That the technology is all too open to abuse by those who would seek to exploit children.

So far, there have been no allegations that the cameras captured any images of nude students, which could fall within the definition of child pornography.

On Thursday, the judge presiding over the case in a federal courtroom in Philadelphia restricted access to the images to the lawyers involved in the case, reports KYW news radio. The school board says it will soon notify the parents of children whose pictures were taken by the spy software, and is working on a way to transfer the photos to the parents, the Inquirer reported Friday.

The latest claims made against the school district contradict what the district itself has said about the use of the cameras. In February, when news of the spy software broke, the school districtpublished a statement saying administrators had activated the monitoring system only 42 times, most of those in order to retrieve lost or stolen laptops.

But the allegations made Thursday suggest “there were 42 instances when they began intensive surveillance on the suspected stolen computers,” reports tech blog Slashdot. “This consisted of (among other things) transmitting a picture from the laptop’s webcam every 15 minutes. This may have gone on for weeks.”

The school district announced in February it was shutting down the spy software, shortly after news of the spy software went public.

Robbins’ family launched the lawsuit two months ago after Blake Robbins was called into a vice-principal’s office and accused of taking drugs. As evidence, the vice-principal showed a photo of pills in Robbins’ bedroom. The Robbins family said the pills were candy, and launched a class-action lawsuit alleging the school district violated Blake’s right to privacy.

This week, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), who held hearings into the Lower Merion School District’s spying activities, introduced legislation limiting the use of surveillance software.

The proposed Surreptitious Video Surveillance Act of 2010 “would update the federal wiretapping statute to create serious criminal and civil penalties for secret, nonconsensual video surveillance inside any temporary or permanent residence, be it your house, your apartment, or your hotel room,”reports the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Independent journalist and funder of We Are Change, a grassroots media outlet.

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