Outrage update: When school laptops are bedroom spies

New revelations have surfaced in the laptop-peeping scandal that is shaking a Pennsylvania high school. Here are the facts

Did school webcams spy on students at home?
(Image credit: Corbis)

It looks like more trouble for the Philadelphia-area high school that allegedly spied on its students at home through the web-cams in school-issued laptops. The situation may be worse than first reported, according to new documents filed by sophomore Blake Robbins and his family in their lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District (LMSD). Allegedly, the web-cam program set up to track lost or stolen laptops snapped thousands of pictures of students in their homes (sometimes partially undressed), and the program's administrator Carol Cafiero laughed with colleagues about the documented "soap opera." (Watch an AP report about the spying Philadelphia school.) Here's a concise update on the growing fiasco:

What are the new allegations?

The Robbins family says that, based on the documents turned over to them by the school district, Cafiero "may be a voyeur." They claim the school laptop took more than 400 snapshots at the Robbins home over 15 days, including screenshots of IM conversations and photos of Blake sleeping and partially undressed. They further allege that Cafiero downloaded some of the snapshots onto her home computer. In one email exchange highlighted by Blake's family, a district employee is quoted as telling Cafiero that the screenshots are like a window into "a little LMSD soap opera," and Cafiero allegedly replied, "I know, I love it."

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How has Cafiero responded?

Cafiero, who's on paid administrative leave during the investigation, invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during a deposition by Robbins' lawyer. Her lawyer says she is cooperating with the federal investigation.

What does the school district say?

LMSD officials acknowledge that they remotely activated the web-cams in an effort to recover 42 lost or stolen laptops this year. In Robbins' case, they say they switched on the web-cam because the Robbins family hadn't paid the required $55 insurance fee authorizing Blake to bring the laptop home. The district conceded that some "mistakes and misguided actions" were taken, but said there was no evidence that the web-cam photos were used for "inappropriate purposes."

How did Robbins find out about the spying?

Reportedly, an assistant principal confronted Blake with laptop snapshots that the school believed depicted Blake taking illegal pills; Blake says he's eating Mike and Ike candies in the photos.

Have the disputed photos been published?

For the most part, no. The Robbins did send The Philadelphia Inquirer a photo of Blake sleeping, purportedly taken from the laptop's camera. Last week, however, Jan Dubois, the judge overseeing the case, barred all parties from disseminating any photos or screenshots from the case without court permission.

Sources: Philadelphia Inquirer (2), Computerworld, CNET, USA Today

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