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Laptop camera snapped away in one classroom

A laptop security program at Lower Merion schools was, when triggered, set up to snap multiple photos of whoever was using the computer, a district computer employee said in a 2008 webcast.

The school district says the webcam surveillance is for security. (Daily News photo illustration)
The school district says the webcam surveillance is for security. (Daily News photo illustration)Read more

A laptop security program at Lower Merion schools was, when triggered, set up to snap multiple photos of whoever was using the computer, a district computer employee said in a 2008 webcast.

As an example, network technician Mike Perbix said, the system snapped as many as 20 photos of a teacher and some students without their knowledge while they were in a high school classroom during regular classes.

It would keep recording photos from the webcam and screen shots of whatever the computer user was doing until it was turned off, he said.

"It's a fantastic feature," Perbix said, chuckling at times as he talked about the theft-tracking feature in the software. "I can't speak highly enough of it."

The webcast provides new details about a system that first surfaced last week, in a federal lawsuit filed by a Harriton High School sophomore and his parents.

Blake Robbins, 15, said in the suit that an assistant principal confronted him last November with a photo from the laptop - supposedly evidence he was involved in "improper behavior" in his Penn Valley house.

The teenager has said that he was holding Mike & Ike candy in his hand, and that the assistant principal thought they might be drugs.

The system was triggered 42 times this school year, in an attempt to track lost or missing computers, school officials say.

District spokesman Douglas Young yesterday repeated that the security program was developed to help recover lost or stolen laptops, and added: "This included tracking loaner laptops that may, against regulations, have been taken off campus."

The wealthy Lower Merion district purchased Apple MacBook laptops for all 2,300 students in its Harriton and Lower Merion High Schools.

But the district requires all students to pay a $55 insurance fee, with a $100 deductible if they are damaged or lost, according to a 2009 letter to parents from Harriton principal Steven R. Kline. "No uninsured laptops are permitted off campus," Kline wrote.

Each school has a pool of "loaner laptops" available for students who haven't paid the fee. Asked if Robbins took a loaner computer home without authorization, Young declined to comment.

The district defended the Harriton High administrator who confronted Robbins, assistant principal Lynn Matsko, saying she has been "unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family."

"The district never did and never would use" a photo taken from a school-issued laptop to discipline a student, the statement said.

The Robbins family declined to comment to a reporter who visited their house yesterday. Their lawyer, Mark S. Haltzman, did not respond to requests for comment.

Since the suit was filed, federal prosecutors have issued a subpoena and Montgomery County authorities have opened their own probe. Meanwhile, the district has already apologized for not telling parents, and it has hired the law firm of Ballard Spahr to conduct an internal investigation and to recommend policy changes.

"These are important issues and we view them seriously," said a statement issued yesterday by attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., the former federal prosecutor leading the effort. While the investigation is under way, he said, people should not jump to conclusions.

"Important issues like these often generate misinformation and unjustified speculation. This situation is no exception."

Other new details are surfacing about the controversy that students are already calling "Webcamgate."

More than a year ago, two Harriton High School student council members privately confronted the principal when they learned that the school could covertly photograph students using the laptop's cameras.

When Kline said it was true, the students told the principal they were worried about privacy rights, and asked questions about other kinds of monitoring. Could, for example, the school system read saved files on their computers? At a minimum, the student leaders told the principal, the student body should be formal warned about any surveillance.

But nothing happened, according to other council members who were briefed afterward, and the student leaders returned a short while later to once again tell the principal that they were greatly concerned about a potential invasion of privacy. Again, nothing happened.

Kline and district spokesman Young did not respond yesterday to requests for comment about the meeting with the principal.

The Web presentation by Perbix is featured on a site touting the benefits of the software system known as LANrev. He talked in detail about the program's different features - including the remote tracking.

Once the feature is activated and a computer goes online, he said, "that computer will start sending back, at regular intervals . . . screen shots [pictures of what is on the computer's screen] and if you have a built-in iSight [the Apple camera], it will start sending in camera shots."

The security system also shows the computer's unique "address" and shows what Internet server it was logged into, which Perbix said can "help the police try to track down your stolen computer."

"Yes, we have used it, and yes, it has gleaned some results for us . . . especially when you're in a school environment and you're worrying about laptops getting up and missing," he said.

Once, he said laptops he thought were stolen were just misplaced - in a classroom.

"And by the time we found out they were back, I had to turn the tracking off, and I had a good 20 snapshots of the teacher and students using the machines in the classroom."

Perbix declined to talk about the webcast this weekend, saying that any comment would come from the school district.

Student council members, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that they did not necessarily disagree with the laptop policy, but that they believed students should have been informed.

"I don't think they were spying on us as the media has portrayed it - that's ridiculous," said a Harriton student council member. But, she said, the administration should have been transparent about what it was doing.

"What would allow them to begin a search? What is installed on my laptop?" she said. "In the immediate future - like, Monday - we look forward to communicating with the administration about this."