School District Admits Taking Inappropriate Photos in Laptop Spying Case

We've been following the Lower Merion school district investigation ever since a student at the school, one Blake Robbins, was accused of engaging in improper behavior based on evidence captured by his school-provided laptop's webcam. Investigative reports now indicate that the school either lied through its teeth about the degree to which cameras were activated or was negligent—possibly criminally negligent—in exercising appropriate oversight of how the system was being used by the staff who had access.

The Story Thus Far

When Blake's parents began asking how the school had come by its evidence, the district admitted that it had installed third-party software that allowed it to activate the webcam of any particular laptop at any time. Lower Merion admitted to an error in judgment in not notifying parents of their remote webcam policies, but initially maintained that the school only activated webcams on laptops that had been reported lost or stolen, and that no systems had been activated inappropriately. From the beginning, this didn't make much sense—Robbins' laptop had never been reported missing, which meant the photographic evidence used by Lower Merion's Assistant Principal to punish him should never have existed in the first place.

One other fun note. The case itself focuses mostly on webcam activity, but the LANrev software package installed on the students' notebooks allowed for a great deal more than remote photo-taking. It's now apparent that other details, including chat logs, web histories, and personal conversations were also available for the taking.

If It Waddles Like A Duck...

This is a duck. Note the distinctive duck-like features and the webbed feet.

Late last week, the Robbins' attourney filed a brief claiming that the school district snapped thousands of photos that documented all aspects of their lives, including the chat rooms and websites they frequented, their IM conversations, and an undocumented amount of really bad cybering. (We made that last one up, but seriously, you know it had to happen). The specific details of several inappropriate monitoring events are detailed on pages three and four of this PDF.

One of the inappropriate photos submitted as evidence by the plaintiffs.

The brief specifically mentions school IT administrator Carol Cafiero as referring to the capability as a window into "a little LMSD soap opera," and telling workers that she "loved" the webcam's capability. Cafiero, it must be noted, hasn't exactly helped her own case. Over the past month, she's taken the 5th to avoid answering every question she's been asked, refused to comply with court orders, and attempted to quash the subpoena that requires her to turn over her personal PC and equipment for investigation.

It Must Be Something Else.

Despite the evidence of duckery, Lower Merion would prefer you believe—and blame—something else. Possibly something like this.

The Lower Merion school district is frantically reassuring parents that it intends to fully disclose all of the webcam photos that were taken while simultaneously maintaining that no photos were inappropriately taken. On April 16, one day after the plaintiff's filing, school board president David Ebby released a statement addressing the issue:

the plaintiffs' motion suggests that the LANrev tracking feature may have been used for the purposes of 'spying' on students. While
we deeply regret the mistakes and misguided actions that have led us to this situation, at this late stage of the investigation we are not aware
of any evidence that District employees used any LANrev Webcam photographs or screenshots for such inappropriate purposes.
Fortunately for Lower Merion, in a court case, you aren't "aware" of something until it's been accepted as evidence by a judge. Given the current state of the investigation, it seems likely that the blame is going to end up squarely on Carol Cafiero. If that happens, you can bet Lower Merion will be tugging on the noose, anxious to paint the entire affair as the result of one bad seed. Don't be fooled. The real question here is why the school district felt it had the right to engage in such behavior, and how Cafiero (if convicted) was able to get away with what she did without anyone else noticing. Even if the illicit actions in Lower Merion started and ended with a single person, the errors that allowed such abuses to occur are systemic.