YOU CAN think what you want, said Holly Robbins, but it's not about the money.
Robbins said that she didn't want to sue the Lower Merion School District when she discovered in November that her 15-year-old son's school-issued laptop was secretly snapping pictures inside their home.
She didn't want to tarnish the reputation of the Main Line district where both she and her husband attended school. And she didn't want parents thinking that they were a money-grubbing family trying to dig themselves out of debt with a class-action lawsuit.
"I tried to communicate with the school prior to filing the lawsuit," Robbins said Sunday during an interview at her Penn Valley home, her hand clasped around her husband's. "I didn't want to file the lawsuit; I didn't want to go through that."
In the family's first extensive newspaper interview, Robbins said that she just wanted to find out why Harriton High School officials were surreptitiously photographing her son, Blake, with the webcam on his Apple MacBook. And she wanted it to stop. But she says that she couldn't get any answers.
"Nobody called me back," she said. "Nobody responded to me."
In February, the family filed the bombshell invasion-of-privacy lawsuit that triggered international headlines, an FBI investigation, new federal wiretapping legislation and even a "What's Wrong With People?" segment on the "Dr. Phil" show.
Turns out, the software that Lower Merion was using to track missing laptops was even more invasive than the Robbinses - and many other families - had imagined. Since the suit was filed, the district has recovered about 56,000 images, and the Robbinses' attorney said that there could be many more.
In Blake Robbins' case, hundreds of pictures were captured by his laptop. Not just photos of him working in front of the computer, but of him sleeping, of him shirtless after getting out of the shower and of his father, Michael.
"Like Gene Simmons [of the rock group Kiss] without makeup," Michael Robbins, a commercial-insurance broker, joked when he saw a picture of himself that was snapped by Blake's webcam and sent to school-district servers.
Some of Blake's friends appear in the photos - which the Daily News has seen - because the software also captured screen shots. The images that Lower Merion has turned over to the family include still pictures of video chats and instant-message conversations involving Blake and his friends.
"It's pretty shocking to think that they would do that to me and invade my privacy," the soft-spoken sophomore said, as he lounged on the living-room couch.
"Pretty scary," he said.
Holly Robbins also believes that her daughter, Paige, a senior at Harriton High, might have been photographed by her school-issued laptop. And there is a week's worth of images from Blake's computer that the district hasn't been able to recover.
"Who knows what else is out there?" the mother asked.
'Playing with fire'
Lower Merion School District purchased the LANrev system in 2007, primarily as a way to provide online updates to laptops it issues to 2,300 high-school students. Included in that system was the controversial tracking feature - now deactivated - at the center of the "Webcamgate" scandal that is two months old but intensifying with each new development.
When a laptop would be reported missing, officials from Harriton High or Lower Merion High would contact network technician Mike Perbix or information- systems coordinator Carol Cafiero to activate the tracking mechanism. Cafiero and Perbix have been placed on paid leave pending results of the district's investigation.
In a 2008 webcast, Perbix raved about LANrev's theft-tracking capability. "Fantastic feature," he said. "I can't speak highly enough of it."
But parents were never notified that the webcams could be remotely activated. In hindsight, the district admits, it was a colossal screwup.
"It's incredible that they didn't realize they were playing with fire," said Robert Richardson, director of the Computer Security Institute.
Lower Merion is regarded as one of the top districts in the state, spending $21,663 per student per year. But money can't buy common sense. Security experts say that it should have been obvious to district officials that the software would collect images of innocent students, their families and friends - and their online communications.
It was practically inevitable.
By design, the LANrev tracking acted like the nastiest type of spyware, capturing data every 15 minutes when activated. The images sent to the district showed who was using a targeted computer, what Web sites they were visiting and with whom they were chatting online.
"This is the classic definition of spyware," said Fred Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, at Indiana University. "It's as bad as you can imagine."
Henry Hockeimer, a former federal prosecutor who is representing the district in the lawsuit, and L3 Communications, a computer- forensics firm hired by the district, are nearing the end of their investigation. A full report will be made public May 3.
Hockeimer said that he's seen no evidence that students were "spied upon" or that teachers or technology staff intentionally misused the technology, but he acknowledged that "the program was utilized in a poorly thought-out and poorly executed way." The FBI and Montgomery County detectives are conducting a criminal investigation.
The district's internal investigation has identified about 50 laptop activations that resulted in images being recovered - including at least five instances in which computers continued to take photos even after a student's laptop was recovered. The computers in those instances captured between 12,000 and 13,000 images, Hockeimer said.
"There was a breakdown of communication regarding the recovery of the laptops and the need to turn off the tracking," he said. "Some serious mistakes were made."
The district has asked Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter to oversee the process of showing the images to parents and students who were victimized. Hockeimer said that none of the images appeared to be salacious or inappropriate.
"The Lower Merion case, if nothing else, is kind of a wake-up call," Richardson said. "You need to think about the fact that your kid's computer has a camera on it."
And anyone who gets "root" control of a computer can remotely activate the camera and microphone and view the screen, he said.
"It's kind of sobering to think about the degree to which your privacy could be violated," Richardson said.
John Livingston, chief executive of Absolute Software Corp., the Vancouver-based firm that bought LANrev in December and has since deactivated the webcam feature, said that taking pictures isn't necessary to locate a stolen laptop. Absolute uses IP addressing, wi-fi triangulation and other less-invasive technology to find laptops, and only after a theft report has been filed with police.
"There's no guaranteed correlation between the picture that might show up and the person that has stolen the device," Livingston said.
Prompted by the Robbins case, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter introduced legislation this month to amend the federal Wiretap Act to make it illegal to capture silent visual images inside another person's home.
"This is going to become law," said Specter, who is running for re-election. He said that his legislation would close a loophole in the federal law that was exposed by the Lower Merion lawsuit.
"You have a very significant invasion of privacy with these webcams, as more information is coming to light," he said.
A divided district
The Robbins lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, caused an immediate backlash from parents who believe that the Robbinses and their attorney are trying to line their pockets with taxpayer dollars. Last week, the district's insurer filed a lawsuit claiming that it is not responsible for any legal costs and payments stemming from the webcam litigation.
"The amount of money that's being spent because of the way that the Robbinses and their attorneys have approached this could have paid for an additional five to 10 reading or math teachers," said Bob Wegbreit, a Narberth councilman whose daughter attends Harriton High.
Wegbreit is one of the leaders of LMSDParents.org, a group opposed to the lawsuit. About 480 parents of high-school students in the district have signed the group's petition.
"You don't just print money," Wegbreit said. "It's a choice of either one family and their attorneys getting funds or all the students benefiting from the education programs."
Michael Boni, a class-action lawyer and father of a Harriton High student, said the inflammatory court filings by the Robbinses' attorney, Mark Haltzman, and the resulting news coverage, have become distractions to students.
"They don't need helicopters hovering overhead while walking to and from school, being asked to talk to reporters and TV cameras," said Boni, who is working with LMSDParents.org.
Haltzman has fanned the flames of the scandal by repeatedly calling the tracking system "Peeping Tom" technology. Earlier this month, he suggested that Cafiero, the information-systems coordinator, may be a "voyeur."
In a court filing, Haltzman cited an e-mail that an IT worker sent to Cafiero, stating that the system was like "a little LMSD soap opera." Cafiero responded: "I know, I love it!"
But Cafiero's attorney, Charles Mandracchia, said that the September 2008 e-mail was deliberately taken out of context. He said that Cafiero was referring to how the program was helping the district recover six computers that were stolen from the Harriton High gym - not to images of students.
"She's talking about the first time they used the program to catch would-be thieves, that it worked," Mandracchia said. "A voyeur is basically someone who's a deviant, who gets off at looking at people in a sexually explicit way, and that is not Mrs. Cafiero. It is just unfounded and outrageous."
Cafiero plans to file a complaint against Haltzman with the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. She initially had invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at a deposition, but answered the FBI's questions last week and has agreed to give a second deposition.
"She's a nice lady," Mandracchia said. "Someone's trying to collect pictures of dead presidents and hang her out to dry."
Some parents, including those who were initially skeptical of the Robbinses' motivation for suing the district, now are siding with the family after learning that the tracking software captured tens of thousands of images.
"The whole tide is turning right now," said Chuck Barsh, a life-insurance salesman whose son is a sophomore at Lower Merion High. "The school district's intent wasn't to look at kids half naked in their bedrooms, but they set up a system where that's exactly what happened!"
"Regardless of the debate over the Robbinses' motivation, if they didn't have the chutzpah they did, this would have never come out," said Carla Zambelli, a Lower Merion resident and community activist.
A couple of conspiracy-theorists in the district think that the whole thing is a right-wing conspiracy because Holly Robbins is a local Republican committeewoman.
"That's crazy!" Robbins said with a laugh.
Life in Penn Valley
They live in a white stucco house on Hidden River Road in a leafy section of Penn Valley, but nothing about the Robbinses' lives has been hidden since they filed the lawsuit. They expected some publicity, but they didn't expect to have their financial troubles scrutinized, or for nearly 1,000 people to join a Facebook page called "Blake Robbins is full of sh*t," where one person recently posted calling them "low-life scum."
"It's been an intense spotlight," Holly Robbins said. "It's been stressful." She can't understand why the family has been demonized when "we were the ones that put a stop to this."
Now that the full scope of the surveillance is surfacing, the Robbinses say that they are hearing less criticism and more support.
"We've had people come up to us in the supermarket and say, 'Thank you for taking a stand,' " Michael Robbins said.
Haltzman said that the family hopes that the suit can be resolved without a trial, but "no formal settlement discussions are currently planned."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is working to ensure that the photos that were taken do not become public, and that such invasions of privacy do not happen again.
"This is what happens when no one is paying attention to how much access the government has to your private life," said ACLU staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper.
"It's a mess," she said, "and it's going to take a lot of work to clean it up."