By Teresa Anderson and Matthew Harwood
An attorney for a student who was surreptitiously photographed via a school-issued laptop has requested additional discovery after learning that the school took thousands of photos of other students.
Parents of 15-year-old Blake Robbins have filed a motion requesting additional digital discovery after more than 400 screen shots and Webcam photos have surfaced of the teenager taken by his high school administrators.
The images of Robbins were surreptitiously taken via a school-issued laptop by Harriton High School. The parents are suing the Lower Merion School District (LMSD) in suburban Philadelphia for remotely activating the laptop’s Webcam and taking covert photos of their 15-year-old son. (Robbins became aware of the surveillance when his vice principal accused him of taking drugs in his bedroom and offered photos from his laptop as evidence. Robbins claims he was eating candy.)
In the most recent motion (pdf), attorney for the parents Mark S. Haltzman claims that he needs access to the personal computers of Carol Cafiero, the school’s IT administrator.
The motion is based on new evidence that the surveillance of students was more widespread than initially thought. For example, the screenshots and Webcam photos of Robbins include images of him sleeping and changing clothes. The motion also reveals that thousands of additional images were taken of other students in their homes.
"In addition, discovery to date has now revealed that thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes, many of which never reported their laptops lost or missing," Haltzman's motion reads.
The motion singles out Cafiero because e-mails suggest that she may be more involved in viewing the images than previously thought. In the e-mail, another school employee notes that viewing the pictures from the student’s computers was like a “soap opera.” Cafiero responded: “I know. I love it!”
"Emails suggest that Carol Cafiero may be a voyeur," the motion notes.
Cafiero's lawyer Charles Mandracchia told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the e-mail exchange was taken out of context and was dated well before the incident involving Robbins.
In a note to parents posted online last Friday, David Ebby, president of the LMSD Board of School Directors, verified that other Webcam pictures were taken of other students .
"A substantial number of webcam photos have been recovered in the investigation," he wrote. "We have proposed a process to Judge DuBois whereby each family of a student whose image appears in any such photos will be notified and given the opportunity to view such photographs."
Ebby, however, wrote that school administrators did not spy 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."
The school district claims that the only time a webcam was activated was when a laptop went missing, was stolen, or, as in Robbins' case, was taken home without paying the insurance fee, according to the Inquirer. But Haltzman's motion insists administrators activated the webcams of "students who did not pay insurance when this was not in accordance with LMSD's own policies since the only information needed was the I.P. address to show that the laptop was taken home."
Ebby also informed parents that the school district had hired an outside counsel and a computer forensic expert to investigate the incident.
"They will provide us their findings in the next few weeks and we will release them to you," he wrote. "We will do so regardless of whether or not we resolve the Robbins litigation."
The discovery request is part of a class action lawsuit against the school district on behalf of the 2,300 students who received the laptops. The complaint alleges that the school violated Robbins’s constitutional rights and broke Pennsylvania state law and several federal statutes.
In response to the lawsuit, Sen. Arlen Specter introduced legislation last week prohibiting certain video surveillance (pdf), especially when a video "acquisition, capture, or recording" occurs in locations with a reasonable expectation of privacy and without the consent of the target of the surveillance.
“Technology is advancing quickly – often faster than our federal laws can keep up,” Specter said in a statement . “Cameras in computers and cell phones are ubiquitous, making it urgent that the federal Wiretap Act protect our citizens from unwarranted intrusions in their homes where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Little more than three weeks ago, Specter held a field hearing in Philadelphia that examined whether the decades-old federal wiretapping statute needed revision due to the rise of high-powered video surveillance.
(For more on the arguments presented at the hearing, read "Senate Hearing Weighs Closing Video Surveillance Loophole .")
♦ Photo of a MacBook Air's built-in camera by Marcin Wichary/Flickr