17
Aug
2010

It’s been a while since we heard anything about the Lower Merion School District webcam controversy, but it’s back in the news today.

First off, the Department of Justice has opted to not file any charges against the school district.  It was decided it was best to get this announced now before the new school year started so that the schools could begin without this hanging over their heads.

Too bad it turns out that a second lawsuit has been filed against the school district over the situation.  In the case of Jalil Hasan, he left his laptop in cooking class on Dec. 18th, 2009, it was turning into the office and he retrieved it from officials on Dec. 21st.  Later that day the tracking software was activated and it went on to gather 469 webcam photographs and 543 screen shots over the next two months.  Mr. Hasan is now 18, heading off to culinary school, but has filed a lawsuit for invasion of privacy.

As for the original lawsuit of Blake Robbins, that suit is still ongoing and his lawyer has asked for $418,000 from the school district to cover his expenses up through July.

In somewhat good news, the school has just issued a new computer policy that actually spells it out for parents and students.  What a concept.  The most important part is:

The most important changes to the policy concern theft tracking, remote access and the privacy of students’ files on District laptops. The School District will only access a student’s computer with the explicit written authority from parents/guardians and students. School personnel will only access a student’s laptop remotely to resolve a technical problem only if the student formally gives the district permission to do so. If the student chooses, he or she can decline the remote access and take the laptop directly to the school’s IT center for repair. Theft tracking software will only be activated if a student and parent/guardian file a police report and provide a signed “remote file access consent” form and a signed incident report to the principal verifying that a laptop has been lost or stolen. Theft tracking software would never have the capability of capturing screen shots, audio, video and on-screen text.

And, yes, all of the bolded words are their doing.  Apparently they really don’t want any confusion this time, but I still wouldn’t want one of their computers in my home.

22
Apr
2010

It seems that the Lower Merion School District may be open to the idea of a settlement outside of court over the webcam spying case.

As the tale of the spying laptops has dragged on, it was revealed the other day that the cameras were turned on 80 times since Sept. 2008. Over the course of those instances, over 56,000 images were shot. Almost all of them were over reports of lost laptops, but it seems the school administrators forgot to turn off the programs after the laptops were found, so they continued to collect screenshots of whatever was on the screens as well as pictures of the students.

Currently there are 15 occurrences of the program being activated that no record can be found of why it was activated.

In the case of Blake Robbins, the students who brought the lawsuit against the district, his camera took an image every 15 minutes for over two weeks.  Why the school did it for so long is unclear, but multiple images were captured of him sleeping and in various stages of undress.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mr. Robbins lawyer met with the lawyer for the school district, the President of the School Board and others in a judge’s chambers on Wednesday for four hours, and while no official details were released, apparently a financial settlement is being discussed to end the lawsuit.  There are also talks of allowing parents to see what images were captured of their children.

Even if the lawsuit goes away, this does not end the potential headaches for the school district as a federal investigation is still underway by the FBI.

16
Apr
2010

The Lower Merion School District which came to some fame as of late, has made another in a long line blunders when it comes to its court case.

In case you don’t remember the story, Lower Merion School District was the school district that had a class action lawsuit against because it used a secuity tracking system that not only located the computer, but would take images via the built-in webcam that was installed into every computer.  The school district claims that it was only ever turned on 42 times by school order, but now it is coming to light that once it was turned on, that meant it could take pictures every 15 minutes for at least two weeks.

According to Philly.com, mixed into the latest batch of documents turned over to the plaintiffs, there were reportedly thousands of pictures of Blake Robbins, the boy whom this whole case revolves around.  Reportedly Mr. Robbins failed to pay the insurance fee on his school issued laptop, and his taking it off school property was reason enough for his cam to be activated.  The problem is that Mr. Robbins was confronted about being involved with drugs due to an image taken of him in his home while eating Mike & Ike candies.

Once the camera issue came to light, and the class action suit begun, things have been crazy with this story.  Now, after a couple of weeks of quiet we find out that the school watched this supposedly “stolen” laptop for two wees.  Amongst the pictures were images of Blake Robbins in various stages of undress, asleep and so on.  Also visible in some of the pictures are his family who have no clue that they are being filmed.

According to court documents, the Robbins’ camera was activated on Oct. 20, 2009 and ran until at least Nov. 11, 2009 when he was confronted, making for a total 22 days this camera was turned on and taking pictures, and also taking screen captures of whatever happened to be on his computer screen at that time.  Are you trying to tell me that in three weeks they couldn’t figure out this boy’s identity?  You had his picture, you had his IP address to help with locating his home, but it wasn’t until he was playing with “pills” that you did anything?

While lawyers for the school say the lawsuit is falling apart, the government is still looking at what possible laws the school violated.  Also, Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) has proposed new legislation which would fold video surveillance into wiretap laws.

Amongst all this it seems that Carol Cafiero, information systems coordinator for the school district who is currently on leave, plead the fifth in her questioning over what transpired.  What do you have to hide Ms. Cafiero?  Either you did your job, or something else was going on.  Perhaps you realize three weeks of surveillance might be deemed a tad bit excessive?

29
Mar
2010

If anything good has come from the Lower Merion School District it is that it is causing the wiretapping law to be reexamined.

The recent situation with the Lower Merion School District using the built-in webcams of the school issued laptops to potentially spy on individuals that had either stolen the laptops or taken them off of school property without permission.  The issues arose when the school activated the camera of a laptop in the possession of Blake Robbins and he was in turn accused of being involved with drugs due to some candies he was eating being mistook for pills.

It was discovered that every laptop had the software installed to remotely access the cameras, and none of the families in the district had been notified of this fact.

Totally separate of the original manner, which has become a huge controversy, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee of Crime and Drugs held a “field hearing” today at Philadelphia’s US District Court, Courtroom 3B, headed up by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA).  The meeting did not involve the actual school district as this is more of a general issue, but the subcommittee did hear evidence from the Electronic Frontier Foundation about why the wiretapping laws should be expanded to cover any means of recording where one has a reasonable expectation of privacy, so this would have no impact on ATMs, casinos, street cams and more (all examples that were mentioned).

While there have been the critics and families that have questioned why this is even a story, but I think the Senate looking into it makes it pretty clear that things went wrong here.  How would you feel if you were sitting at home and you learned that the webcam staring at you could be activated without your permission or knowledge?  Not a good feeling, and you should have the right to not even worry about such a situation.

No final decision was made today, but it’s good to know that the situation is at least being looked into.

6
Mar
2010

The case of the webcam spying in the Lower Merion School District has now gotten two employees suspended for doing their jobs.

According to Philly.com, Lower Merion School District employees Michael Perbix, a network technician, and Carol Cafiero, information systems coordinator have been suspended with pay while the investigation into the legalities of the webcam spy case are investigated.  These were the only two employees charged with the power of turning on the webcams, a task that could only be done when they received a phone call from a higher up at one of the high schools to report that a laptop had been lost or stolen.

All of this came to light due to 15-year-old Blake Robbins supposedly being confronted about being involved with drugs due to an image taken of him in his home while eating Mike & Ike candies, Apparently Mr. Robbins had not paid the $55 insurance fee on his Mac Book, which meant he was not allowed to take it home with him. When this was reported to the IT department, they activated the camera and captured the image of him with the candies that set off this firestorm.

The school district is now under investigation by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Montgomery County detectives, as well as being subpoenaed by the grand jury.  Due to these investigations, both Mr. Perbix and Ms. Cafiero have been suspended with pay until such time as the investigations are completed.

What has come to light now is that the local police were aware of the software as they had been presented with images taken by the cameras in cases where the laptops had been stolen.  Marc Neff, a lawyer representing Perbix, told Philly.com, “Quite honestly, the police knew about these devices.  They were not in the dark about the fact that these computers were being tracked.”

All of the finger pointing aside, could someone explain to me why the two lowest people on the totem pole are the ones being suspended?  Did they choose to implement the software?  Sure, they may have recommended it, but someone above them had to approve it.  They also weren’t allowed to activate the cameras without express permission.

Now adding in that Mr. Robbins hadn’t paid his insurance fee is supposed to excuse all of this I’m assuming, but nothing changes the fact the school district did not inform parents that each of their children has “a loaded gun” pointing at them at all times in the form of a webcam.  Make all the excuses you want, this school district still messed up badly.

3
Mar
2010

It seems some parents in the Lower Merion School District aren’t too happy about the class action lawsuit that has been filed over the supposed webcam spying case, and they plan to do something about it.

For the past two weeks I’ve been covering the case against the Lower Merion School District over the situation with the webcams parents had not been notified could spy on their children.  While the class action lawsuit filed by Blake Robbins is still being certified, parents of several hundred students are moving for it to be dismissed due to the costs that will be incurred by the school district, which is funded by their tax dollars.

To this end, the LMSD Parents have set up a Web site for parents to sign a petition to get the suit stopped.  According to Philly.com, the parents held a strategy meeting last night at the Narberth Borough Hall that was open only to parents of students who had been issued a laptop by the school district.

Apparently the parents discussed various ways to block the suit reaching class action lawsuit, and one parent even went so far as to say the Robbins family should just move to another school district.

While I could somewhat see the point of the families, they lost me at the point they refused permission to Mark Haltzman, the attorney for the Robbins family, to attend the meeting to explain their side of the situation.

Why was he denied permission to attend?  Are they not concerned with hearing both sides of the situation?  Mr. Haltzman told the press he wanted to explain how at least an independent party needs to be brought in to investigate to what extent the student’s privacy rights had been violated, but apparently these parents aren’t concerned with this.

As I said, I could see the parent’s side for a bit, but then it became obvious this is a situation of, “Oh, well, it wasn’t my kid, so it doesn’t matter.”  What sort of lesson is this teaching the kids?  “Oh rights don’t matter so long as it doesn’t impact you.”  I hate to always go back to this famous saying, but …

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

The Lower Merion School District violated the privacy rights of all 2300 students whether every camera was turned on or not.  To say, “they apologized” as one parent did, or suggest this one child and his family should move to another school district doesn’t change the fact this school potentially violated the rights of the children.

Think I’m making too much of a deal out of this?  Then why are both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Montgomery County detectives investigating the situation?  Within 48 hours of the story breaking to the media they began looking into it.  If there wasn’t a possibility of there being problems, they wouldn’t be there.

Perhaps when it comes to the rights of children, parents should think a bit further than their pocketbooks?

23
Feb
2010

It seems that at least some people involved in the school webcam spying debacle were really proud of themselves.

A blog named Stryde Hax did some digging into the case of the Lower Merion School District spying on its students via their laptop webcams, and found that one of the people charged with running the system was quite frankly very proud of himself.  According to this very detailed blog post, an LMSD employee named Mike Perbix is one the technology employees for the school district, and he also seems to be very active in forms and on social networking sites.

It seems his pride in the schools ability to use a program named LANRev led to him even talking in a promotional video for the product talking about how wonderful it is and how it allows him to enter into computers without the user knowing about what is going on.  The program is now owned by another company, which has spoken out against the way the school district has used the program for “theft recovery, but the evidence of how Mr. Perbix gleefully talked about it is still out there.

I highly recommend you read the Stryde Hax post because it is by far some of the best reporting done on this disturbing story.

Additionally, students have now been coming out with more information, some of it contained in that same post that talks about how students couldn’t use non-school issued laptops in school under penalty of them being confiscated.  Thinking about going into your school issued computer and disabling your webcam?  Well, that would garner you an expulsion from school.  One former student with an unsubstantiated claim says that he would see his webcam light come for no reason, and when he reported it to the school, they told him it was merely a malfunction.

Things at these schools just get creepier, and creepier.

21
Feb
2010

It has not been a good weekend for the officials at the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania.

Yesterday brought the news that both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Montgomery County detectives were launching investigations into the possibility that the Lower Merion School District had violated both wiretapping and computer-intrusion laws.  Not wasting any time, Philly.com is reporting that grand jury subpoenas have already been issued to the schools for records and logs relating to the activation of the webcams built into school issued laptops.

The whole saga began on Thursday when the Blake Robbins class action suit against the school district came to light.  Mr. Robbins had been accused of “improper behavior in his home,” and was presented with a printed out picture from a computer webcam as evidence.  Mr. Robbins told the media gathered outside of his home recently that the image was of him eating Mike & Ike candies, which the school mistook for illegal pills, and has again stated this on the CBS’ Early Show Saturday Edition this weekend.

District spokesman Doug Young said that the cameras had been activated 42 times in the past 18-months in an effort to to find lost or stolen computers, of which 18 had been recovered.  Although Mr. Young would not specify why this particular camera that saw Mr. Robbins had been activated, he told the Associated Press, “infer what you want.”  The latest motion in the case states, “[Blake Robbins] was at home using a school issued laptop that was neither reported lost nor stolen when his image was captured by Defendants without his or his parents’ permission and while he was at home,” according to ComputerWorld.

The latest motions filed in court against the school are to bar any discussion with students or their families about the matter during the investigations.  Also, all files, logs and so on are to be preserved as evidence until further notice.  And it may not just be the FBI and county detectives that the school district has to be worried about, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said yesterday: “We’re going to be looking into the situation to see if a criminal investigation is warranted.”

One of the most damning statements to be made so far has come from Virginia DiMedio, the district’s technology director until she retired last summer.  Again according to Philly.com, Ms. DiMedio said that she recalled no discussions about what to tell families about the security system, and how and when it would be used.

While Dr. Christopher McGinley has repeatedly apologized for the supposed oversight of informing families of the technology being installed on the laptops, things are looking more and more like the school just completely disregarded not only common sense, but the law in its actions.  The idea of supplying each student with a laptop is an admirable one, there are other loss prevention alternatives such as GPS and LoJack that could have easily located any lost or stolen laptops without ever needing to activate the webcams.  This is such a heinous violation of privacy that it is mind boggling.  And while the school still states that logs were kept of each activation, and only two employees had access to the software, this situation was a voyeurs dream come true.  All it would have taken is one less than moral employee to ruin many teenagers lives for years to come.

Willa McGowan, 17, of Rosemont, told Philly.com that while she was concerned about the webcams, she also worried about the school district’s reputation.  “Honestly, I love this school and this school district,” she said. “I don’t want this case to sully Lower Merion’s name.”  I’m sorry to say Ms. McGowan, that boat has already sailed it seems.

20
Feb
2010

The saga of the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania is getting another chapter added to it: The FBI and local detectives have entered the picture.

The other day I reported on a class action lawsuit (PDF link) being filed against the Lower Merion School District over the discovery that the school district could remotely activate the webcams in the 2300 laptops it had issued to students.  The information came to light when 15-year-old Blake Robbins was called to the Asst. principals office and was accused of “improper behavior in his home.”  As evidence of his poor behavior, he was presented with prints outs of images taken from a laptop’s webcam.

District spokesman Doug Young said that the cameras had been activated 42 times in the past 18-months in an effort to to find lost or stolen computers, of which 18 had been recovered.  Although Mr. Young would not specify why this particular camera that saw Mr. Robbins had been activated, he told the Associated Press, “infer what you want.”  However, according to Philly.com, Mr. Robbins told the media gathered outside of his home recently that the image was of him eating Mike & Ike candies, which the school mistook for illegal pills.

Whatever the case may be in the situation with Mr. Robbins, the school district’s ability to activate the cameras had never been revealed to the students or their families in any way.  This has now gotten the attention of both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Montgomery County detectives over the possibility that the school violated both wiretapping and computer-intrusion laws.

The school district reports that the software which allowed them to remotely activate the camera’s has now been deactivated, but that isn’t putting any student’s minds at ease.  Reportedly the students have begun placing tape over the webcams built into their school-issued Apple laptops, and who can blame them?  The school has given permission for the students to cover the cameras, but, honestly, did they have a choice at this point in time?  And furthermore, if I was a student in this school district, they would be finding the laptop on their front lawn the moment I learned they could do this.

Dr. Christopher W. McGinley, the superintendent of the school district, has released a letter and a list of answers to frequently asked questions, one of which somewhat supports Mr. Robbins claims about the candies if you read between the lines (which you kind of have to do with each of his very carefully worded answers):

1. Did an assistant principal at Harriton ever have the ability to remotely monitor a student at home? Did she utilize a photo taken by a school-issued laptop to discipline a student?

  • No. At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security- tracking software. We believe that the administrator at Harriton has been unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family. The district never did and never would use such tactics as a basis for disciplinary action.

Well, that’s nice and all, but the Asst. principal was never accused of being the one to access the camera, she simply had a print out of the image. Secondly, the lawsuit never mentions disciplinary action, it just says he was accused of “improper behavior in his home.”  And, I’m sorry, but being “supportive of a student and his family” involves showing a teenage boy an image that proves we can see in to your home?  Oh, I feel all warm and safe now!

No matter how you slice it, the school district messed up, and it messed up in a spectacular fashion.  No matter what Mr. Robbins did or did not do is not the point here.  The point is that a school district, no matter how altruistic its motives may have been, hid software capable of spying on someone in their own home without their knowledge.  Dr. McGinley admits it was wrong of them to not inform the students and their families of the software, which he fully admits they did not, and this shows such a spectacular lack of judgement that I would question every thing to do with this school system at this point.

A school is somewhere you are supposed to be able to send your children and feel safe in doing so.  Knowing that the school saw no problem in keeping vital information from you such as, “Oh, by the way, we can look at your child any time we want, even at home, without telling you” just goes beyond the pale.

Again I say, this is not about Mr. Robbins and what he may or may not have done, but it is very distinctly about a growing and worrying trend of schools overstepping the boundaries of common sensibilities.  What’s next?  Handcuffing a 12-year-old for doodling on her desk?  Oh … wait … that already happened.  Okay, how about handcuffing a six-year-old for throwing a temper tantrum?  Surely they wouldn’t … oh … dang it.

In short … are you sure you know what your public school is doing to “protect” your kids?

18
Feb
2010

It seems that when the Lower Merion School District gave laptops to its 2300 high school students, there was a little unadvertised bonus included: a webcam that can be remotely operated any time the school district sees fit.

On Nov. 11th, 2009, Blake J. Robbins was called to his high school’s Asst. Principal’s office where he was informed he was in trouble for “improper behavior in his home.”  As evidence of his poor behavior, he was presented with prints outs of images taken from his laptop’s webcam.

Upon informing his parents of the situation, his father, Michael Robbins, questioned the Asst. Principal about how the evidence was collected.  She confirmed that the school district was able to remotely access the webcams built into the laptops the students had been given.

The Robbins family has now filed a class action lawsuit (PDF link) on behalf of all 2300 students against the school district, its board of directors and Superintendent Christoper McGinley.   The suit says that the students that were given these laptops can sue for “invasion of Plaintiff’s privacy, theft of Plaintiff’s private information and unlawful interception and access to acquired and exported data and other stored electronic communications in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, The Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, § 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act and Pennsylvania common law.”

If the plaintiffs are able to prove their case, all awards would be split amongst the 2300 students named in the class.

According to the research of the legal team working for the Robbins, there was nothing in the documentation that came with the laptops, or on the Web site of the school district that mentioned the ability to remotely activate the webcams.

If the evidence bears out, and this proves to be true, I am disgusted down to my core, and I wonder why criminal charges aren’t also being filed.

As Cory Doctorow pointed out on Boing Boing, people keep laptops in their bedrooms where they sleep, change clothes and engage in private matters.  Imagine the webcam gets remotely activated while a teenager is changing.  What if the laptop happens to be in the parents bedroom while they are engaged in sexual activity?  Essentially, again if this is true, the Lower Merion School district just bugged 2300 homes.

And I am dying to know what constituted the “improper behavior in his home” that set this whole sequence of events in to motion.  Whatever happened in his home, no matter how “improper”, was none of the school’s business.  If it doesn’t happen on school property or time, anything the student may have been engaged in would be the business of his parents or the police if need be, but not the school’s.

I sincerely hope that this is a misunderstanding and somehow this has all been a mistake, but if it proves to be true, then the school district deserves to go bankrupt.

As a side note, I called the school district this morning in conjunction to another article I was writing on the subject.  The receptionists seemed more than just  bit exasperated when I asked for the press relations department, and I never did get a hold of anyone in the office, nor were any calls returned.  Apparently they were a bit overwhelmed today …

Correction: Changed 1800 students to 2300 students.