The Philadelphia Inquirer reports, “The system that Lower Merion school officials used to track lost and stolen laptops wound up secretly capturing thousands of images, including photographs of students in their homes, Web sites they visited, and excerpts of their online chats, says a new motion filed in a suit against the district.” Recap: In a February lawsuit — Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (pdf) — in Pennsylvania, the Robbins family alleged that the Lower Merion School District misused Webcam-enabled laptops it issued to students in order to remotely peep into the students’ homes, take photographs and violate their privacy. The school district has denied violating anyone’s privacy, claiming the Webcams were only turned on in case of lost or stolen computers. The FBI and local officials are investigating.
In the motion to compel (pdf) filed by the Robbins family’s attorneys on Thursday, they allege that more than 400 screenshots and photos were taken of Blake Robbins via the laptop webcam (including images of the teen sleeping or partially undressed), and “discovery to date has now revealed that thousands of webcam pictures and screenshots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes, many of which never reported their laptops lost or missing.”
The Inquirer reports:
Back at district offices, the Robbins motion says, employees with access to the images marveled at the tracking software. It was like a window into “a little LMSD soap opera,” a staffer is quoted as saying in an e-mail to Carol Cafiero, the administrator running the program.
“I know, I love it,” she is quoted as having replied.
Cafiero, information systems coordinator, and Michael Perbix, a network technician, were put on paid leave in February. Three school district employees have given depositions in the Robbins case, but Cafiero has refused to do so and has invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.
“An attorney for the district declined to comment last night on the Robbinses’ latest motion, except to say that a report due in a few weeks will spell out what the district’s own investigation has found,” reports the Inquirer.
Also in the news: Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs Chairman Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) , who held a hearing on the controversy, has introduced legislation on video surveillance. Specter announced that he, “along with cosponsors Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), has introduced legislation that seeks to plug a gap in privacy law by amending the federal Wiretap Act to treat video surveillance the same as an interception of an electronic communication.”
Specter says the Lower Merion controversy focused national attention on “the gap in the law.” His announcement added:
The Surreptitious Video Surveillance Act of 2010 bill strikes a balance of protecting important privacy rights without proscribing the visual surveillance needed to protect our property and safety by:
- amending the federal Wiretap Act to treat video surveillance the same as an interception of an electronic communication and
- defining video surveillance to mean the intentional recording of visual images of an individual in an area of a residence that is not readily observable from a public location and in which the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Importantly, the bill does not regulate video surveillance where another resident or individual present in the residence consents to the surveillance; does not regulate cameras in the workplace; does not prohibit the use of cameras in undercover operations using confidential informants; and does not include residential security systems which use video cameras.