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Family sues school over software that spied

PHILADELPHIA — The system that Lower Merion, Pa., 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.

More than once, the motion asserts, a laptop camera took photos of Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins as he slept in his bed.

The motion, filed in federal court late Thursday by his lawyers, says that each time the camera took Robbins' picture, it fired the image off to network servers at the school district.

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.

The motion offers a wider glimpse into the now-disabled program that spawned Robbins' lawsuit and has shined an international spotlight on the district.

In the filing, the Penn Valley family says the district's records show that the controversial tracking system captured more than 400 photos and screen images from 15-year-old Robbins' school-issued laptop during two weeks in the fall, and that "thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes."

Robbins and his parents, Michael and Holly, contend that e-mails turned over to them by the district suggest Cafiero "may be a voyeur" who might have viewed some of the photos on her home computer.

The motion says Cafiero, who has been placed on paid leave, has failed to turn that computer over to the plaintiffs despite a court order, and it asks a judge to sanction her.

Cafiero's lawyer on Thursday night disputed the suggestion that his client had downloaded any such photos to her home computer. Lawyer Charles Mandracchia said Cafiero had cooperated with federal investigators and was willing to let technicians hired by the district examine her computer if the judge so ordered.

He also said Robbins' attorney had never asked him for Cafiero's personal computer. "He's making this up because his case is falling apart," Mandracchia said.

Since the Robbinses sued in February, district officials have acknowledged that they activated the theft-tracking software on school-issued laptops 42 times since September, and a number of times in the previous school year — all in order to retrieve lost or stolen computers.

But they have stopped short of specifying how many students may have been photographed and monitored, or how often — information that could shed light on whether Robbins' experience was unique or common.

The Robbinses' lawyer, Mark Haltzman, said the new details had emerged in tens of thousands of pages of documents and e-mails the district turned over to him in recent weeks.

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