Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How a lawsuit over school laptops evolved

Soon after Lower Merion schools started handing out laptops to high school students in 2008, a school board member had a question: Were any being lost or stolen?

Blake Robbins, 15, sued over a Web cam photo taken with security software that wowed Lower Merion district officials. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Blake Robbins, 15, sued over a Web cam photo taken with security software that wowed Lower Merion district officials. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)Read more

Soon after Lower Merion schools started handing out laptops to high school students in 2008, a school board member had a question: Were any being lost or stolen?

The query, from Jerry Novick, drew a small smile from the technology chief, Virginia DeMedio.

"We did have a theft," she said. "And we have a way we can track them. . . .

"There were six that were taken. All but one came back."

Satisfied, the board moved on to other matters. No one mentioned that the district had tracked down those computers with a powerful software program that could secretly snap photos of the user.

That conversation, captured on video, hinted at the roots of the Web cam debacle to come: Lower Merion administrators' near-evangelical faith in the power of computers to remake education - and a corresponding blind spot on the potential hazards of their own use of technology.

Those perils became clear last month with the disclosure that the school had secretly snapped photos of a Harriton High School sophomore in his home - sparking a civil lawsuit, a federal criminal investigation, and an international uproar about privacy in the digital age.

A review shows that Lower Merion administrators blew past warnings of trouble and missed obvious opportunities to disclose the Web cam capability to parents and students.

Instead, as the district tried to keep track of 2,300 expensive Apple computers in the hands of teenagers, the use of the powerful surveillance capabilities seemed to fade into the background, just another part of the school routine.

When Lower Merion police hunted down schools' stolen computers, they sometimes used the Web cam pictures to help build a case.

Network technician Michael Perbix, in computer forums and in a Webcast, would recount how he could hunt down and monitor the laptops without anyone knowing.

"If you're controlling someone's machine," he said, "you don't want them to know what you're doing."

The district finally suspended the practice - and apologized for not disclosing it - after the family of 15-year-old Blake Robbins filed a federal lawsuit saying the Web cam program amounted to a systematic violation of students' civil rights.

Now a law firm and forensics experts are trying to count how many times the software was activated - and figure out if it was ever used to spy on students instead of tracking missing computers.

The district has said it turned on the system 42 times this academic year, but won't say how often it used the tracking device in the previous two years - or how many pictures were collected.

Parents may never know: Those computer files are purged before each school year, according to sources.

School officials have declined to comment in detail while the investigation continues.

The two sides in the lawsuit have signaled a possible settlement, but the controversy is far from over: The FBI is still investigating, and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter has promised to hold a federal hearing.

In a new twist, sources say administrators decided to talk to Blake Robbins in part because they were worried about a threatening text message to the sophomore captured in their surveillance software.

No matter what, this wealthy Main Line district will retain a worldwide reputation for snooping on students - and is still on the hook for potentially huge legal bills.

Perbix and his boss, information systems coordinator Carol Cafiero, have been placed on paid leave. Their attorneys say that their clients did nothing wrong and that it was the responsibility of the administration to come up with a policy to protect student privacy.

"I don't think there was a whole lot of intelligent debate on how to implement this program," said Marc Neff, attorney for Perbix.

'Mike loves it'

In 2007, as Lower Merion prepared to hand out laptops to each high school student, computer technicians were looking for a better way to manage their growing inventory. They settled on a software program called LANrev.

The big attraction: It allowed them to install software on thousands of laptops at once, remotely, and it worked on both Windows and Apple machines.

Another selling point was a feature known as Theft Tracker.

In September 2007, Cafiero recommended the purchase in a memo to her boss, DeMedio.

"If a computer is stolen, we can mark it stolen on the LANrev server," she wrote. ". . . And then the laptop will take screen shots and pictures of the user with the built-in camera."

Without seeking bids, the district spent $156,357 for the software in 2007, according to district documents.

"Oh, Mike loves it, and I agree it is a great product," Cafiero wrote in an e-mail to DeMedio, who retired last summer.

The One to One laptop program was launched at Harriton in the 2008 school year, aided by $721,000 in state grants. Teachers and administrators immediately declared the program a big success: Students were writing more and making their own videos, board members were told. Lower Merion High would get them the next year.

But there were also problems - some of them of the administration's own making.

First, the school sent the laptops home without requiring parents and students to sign an updated policy that clearly set out the rules and regulations.

Instead, students signed an old policy that set rules for use of the school's Internet network. It said nothing about laptops, let alone the remote Web cam photos.

No one ever came up with formal written rules for using Theft Tracker, either. However, technical staff members did follow some rough guidelines.

Only Perbix and Cafiero could turn it on. They worked at tech department headquarters in an office far from the two high schools, on Rock Hill Road in Bala Cynwyd.

Their lawyers say they used the tracker only after getting a request from the high schools, either from another member of the tech department or from a principal or assistant principal.

When the program was triggered, an icon typically appeared next to the computer being tracked: a Sherlock Holmes-style hat and a magnifying glass.

Once it was on, the feature kept recording information until it was turned off. Every 15 minutes, as long as the computer was on, open, and connected to the Internet, the program did three things. It recorded the computer's Internet address, captured a screen image, and snapped a Web cam photo.

When it took a picture, it immediately sent it to the school's server, then erased the file created on the laptop. There was no easy way for users to figure out that they were being watched, technical experts said.

It's not clear who in the Lower Merion schools had access to the Web cam photos. In a memo explaining LANrev to his fellow techs, Perbix said that, while only he and Cafiero could turn the system on, the information collected was "visible to you if the computer is one you can normally view."

"We also can make these reports available via a Web site to local police who can analyze the information and act upon it," he wrote.

Tracked to Pakistan

That's what happened in the fall of 2008 when six laptops were stolen from the Harriton locker room during a gym class.

Lower Merion police, with an assist from the regional FBI computer lab in Radnor, tracked down five of the computers and arrested the culprit - another student, sources said.

The sixth was tracked to Pakistan.

As time went on, the schools reported thefts to the police nearly two dozen times; three times, juveniles were charged, the sources said. In an additional half-dozen cases, laptops reported stolen turned out to be merely misplaced, the sources said.

Pictures were routinely turned over to police, along with the computer's Internet address.

On his blog, "Best Thing Since Sliced Bread," Perbix recounted an incident in which police recovered a stolen laptop that was sending back its Internet location.

"The police went to the house and were befuddled to find out the people we knew had the laptop was not the family that lived there," Perbix wrote, cautioning people to secure their home wireless network.

"Well, we eventually found out that they were the neighboring house and were borrowing the unsecured WiFi."

Joseph Daly, who retired in 2009 as Lower Merion police superintendent, said he never knew that his department was being furnished with pictures snapped from students' laptops.

"God, no, I don't remember that," he said when told about it. "That's illegal as hell."

Even if no laws were in fact broken, Daly said, it's still a terrible idea.

"A better plan would be: If you lose it, guess what - you owe the school a new computer," said Daly, now police chief in Springfield, Delaware County.

Charles McGrath, current Lower Merion police superintendent, said that, because of the ongoing investigation, he could not comment.

Questioning privacy

Inside the schools, word was getting out. Some students put sticky notes over the Web cams, students said.

During the last school year, two Harriton student council members met with principal Steven R. Kline to ask about the Web cam rumors.

When Kline confirmed it, students told him they were worried about privacy violations and asked about other types of monitoring. But nothing happened - not even after the students returned for a follow-up visit, according to other council members who were briefed afterward.

In a computer forum about how to disable the Apple Web cams, Perbix joked:

"I ask my users to please put on the sticky: 'In the event that you steal this machine, please remove sticky before operation' . . . so that I may get a picture of the person."

Perbix, a Temple University graduate who has worked in the district's IT department for 12 years, became an enthusiastic user of LANrev, even appearing on a promotional Webcast for the company.

"The other big feature which really, really, really, I really liked about this is the . . . theft tracking," he said.

In 2009, the year the program was expanded to Lower Merion High, the district sent a letter to parents of high school students laying out some laptop rules. Downloading of games was prohibited, and families had to pay a $55 insurance fee. "No uninsured laptops are permitted off campus," it said.

Still, the letter said nothing about computer tracking or remote Web cam photos.

Some teachers and administrators did warn students, sporadically. At Lower Merion, an assistant principal told ninth graders about the tracking and remote Web cams during an orientation session in September.

In November, Perbix was asked to turn on the computer assigned to Robbins.

The 15-year-old was hard on the Harriton laptops. He reportedly broke the screens of at least two. In November, he was using a replacement from a pool of loaner laptops. His family, which had struggled with unpaid utility bills and other debts, hadn't paid the required $55 insurance fee.

In Robbins' case, the tracking system wasn't activated to find a missing computer; according to his lawyer, the school knew he had been using the same loaner for a month.

Instead, someone decided to initiate Theft Tracker because it was suspected Robbins was taking the laptop home without permission, sources said.

The tracking program, by logging the laptop's Internet address overnight, would prove it. But, as was routine, Perbix left all three features running. Every 15 minutes, LANrev tried to log the location, snap a picture, and capture an image of what was on Robbins' screen.

What the program found alarmed the technical staff. One image showed him holding what looked like pills. Robbins says it was really Mike & Ike candy.

There was something else: A screen shot captured a text exchange between Robbins and another student. Staff members read the message as a threat to Robbins.

The exact nature of the message could not be learned. The Robbins family attorney, Mark S. Haltzman, said no one at the school had mentioned anything to Robbins about a potential threat.

In the tech offices, staff members debated what to do with the information before agreeing that it was a decision best left to the administration.

"As a practical matter, you don't want to be the guy who inadvertently sees something and says nothing, and, God forbid, something happens to that child," said Neff, Perbix's lawyer.

"Is it not better to come to someone at a higher pay grade and say, 'I inadvertently came across this information. What should I do?' "

Assistant principal Lynn Matsko called the Robbins family and brought Blake in for a talk. Haltzman says Matsko confronted the teen with suspicions that he was dealing drugs.

If there really had been concern for his safety, Haltzman said, Matsko said nothing to Robbins about it.

"The conversation had to do with a perception by the school administration that he was involved with pills, that he had pills," he said.

Even if some technical department employee was worried about Robbins, Haltzman said, it didn't justify the remote surveillance.

Perbix and Cafiero are on leave pending the outcome of the district's investigation. District spokesman Doug Young said there was no indication they had done anything wrong.

After the suit was filed, the company that last year bought out LANrev's owner said trying to track computers through covert Web cam photos didn't make sense. Company officials said they would eliminate that part of the software.

"They're not admissible in court, and it isn't an effective way of finding a stolen laptop," said Stephen Midgley, vice president for marketing at Absolute Software Corp.

"We don't see value in this particular feature."