Lower Merion School District employees activated the Web cameras and Internet address tracking software on laptops they gave to high school students about 146 times during the last two school years, snapping nearly 56,000 images, district investigators have concluded.
In 48 of those activations, images were recovered; 68 showed only the computer's Internet address. The rest showed nothing or could not be recovered.
The images included photos of students, pictures inside their homes, and copies of the programs or files on their screens, the investigators said.
The district will give a full report at a school board meeting on May 3.
In most of the cases, technicians turned on the system after a student or staffer reported a laptop missing and turned it off when the machine was found, the investigators determined.
But in at least five instances, school employees let the Web cams keep clicking for days or weeks after students found their missing laptops, according to the review. Those computers - programmed to snap a photo and capture a screenshot every 15 minutes when the machine was on - fired nearly 13,000 images back to the school-district servers.
"This is where a significant mistake has been made," Henry Hockeimer, the district's lawyer, said at a school board meeting Monday night. "Clearly those trackings should have been turned off earlier."
The data, which Hockeimer presented to the board after making it available to The Inquirer earlier in the day, represents the most detailed account yet of how and when Lower Merion used the remote tracking system, a practice that has sparked a civil rights lawsuit, an FBI investigation, and new federal legislation.
Hockeimer declined to describe in detail any of the recovered Web-cam photos, or identify the people in them or their surroundings. He said none appeared to be "salacious or inappropriate" images but said that in no way justified the use of the program.
"The taking of these pictures without student consent in their homes was obviously wrong," Hockeimer said.
A federal magistrate judge is expected this week to begin the process of arranging for parents whose children were photographed to privately view the photos.
Hockeimer said that the district's internal investigation was ongoing and that the numbers could change. He said the board authorized him to release the information in response to a court motion filed last week by Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins, whose lawsuit contends the program invaded his privacy.
In the motion, Robbins' attorney, Mark Haltzman, argued that the now-disabled system surreptitiously collected more than 400 photos of his client - including shots of him when he was shirtless and while he slept in his bed last fall - as well as thousands of images from other students' computers.
The numbers disclosed by the district Monday confirmed that assertion and added clarity.
Lower Merion began using the system after deciding to give each of its nearly 2,300 high school students a laptop. The program started in 2008 at Harriton High School and expanded this school year to Lower Merion High.
In addition to the photos and screenshots, the technology also used the laptop's Internet address to pinpoint its location. The system was designed to automatically purge all the images after the tracking was deactivated.
Hockeimer said that lawyers from his firm, Ballard Spahr, and specialists from L3, a computer forensics firm, have used e-mails, voice mails, and network data to piece together how often, when, and why school officials used the technology.
The "vast majority" of instances, he said, represent cases in which the technology appeared to be used for the reasons the district first implemented it in 2008: to find a lost or stolen laptop or, in a few cases, when a student took the computer without paying a required insurance fee.
About 38,500 images - or almost two-thirds of the total number retrieved so far - came from six laptops that were reported missing from the Harriton gymnasium in September 2008. The tracking system continued to store images from those computers for nearly six months, until police recovered them and charged a suspect with theft in March 2009.
The next biggest chunk of images stems from the five or so laptops on which employees failed or forgot to turn off the tracking software, even after the student recovered the computer.
In a few other cases, Hockeimer said, the team has been unable to recover images or photos stored by the tracking system. In about 15 activations, investigators have been unable to identify why a student's laptop was being monitored.
Hockeimer said that the investigation found that administrators activated the tracking system for just one student this year who failed to pay the $55 insurance fee.
Robbins says he is that student. Hockeimer declined to confirm or deny that.
About 10 employees at the district and its two high schools had the authority to request the computer administrators to activate the tracking system on a student's laptop, Hockeimer said.
Only two employees - information systems coordinator Carol Cafiero and network technician Mike Perbix - could actually turn on and off the tracking. Hockeimer said the district investigators have no evidence to suggest either Perbix or Cafiero activated the system without being asked.
But the requests were loose and disorganized, he said, sometimes amounting to just a brief e-mail.
"The whole situation was riddled with the problem of not having any written policies and procedures in place," Hockeimer said. "And that impacted so much of what happened here."
Robbins has claimed that an assistant principal confronted him in November with a Web-cam photo of him in his bedroom. Robbins said that the photo shows him with a handful of Mike & Ike candies, but that the assistant principal thought they were drugs.
His attorney, Haltzman, greeted Hockeimer's statement skeptically. "I wish the school district would have come clean earlier, as soon as they had this information and not waiting until something was filed in court revealing the extent of the spying," he said.
Michael Boni, the father of a Harriton High School student and a leader of lmsdparents.org, which is seeking to minimize the expense of the Robbins lawsuit while pushing for a thorough investigation, said of Hockeimer's disclosures: "We welcome the transparency; we see this as a good first step."
He added that his group wants "the school district to be held accountable and, most of all, we want the district to look ahead and develop a set of policies and procedures that makes sure this will never happen again."
Ru Freeman, one of the founders of Parents in Support of the Lower Merion School District, said, "I think it's important for all of us parents to stay calm and wait until all the information is out after the judicial process is complete."
Mike Salmanson, father of a district second grader, said, "The fact that a system that allowed the monitoring of people without their consent was used in such a loose and disorganized way gives me great doubts about whether the school board and the administration realized the serious privacy issues involved."
Hockeimer said Monday night that earlier in the day he met with attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and concerned parents to fashion a permanent injunction that would lead to "policies and procedures to prevent anything like this from happening again."