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.