Report blames IT staff for school Webcam 'spying' mess

Pa. school district's former IT head dismissed privacy worries of student intern in '08

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"There is no way that I would approve or advocate for the monitoring of students at home," said DiMedio. "I suggest you take a deep breath and relax."

"It is only used in the case where a laptop is reported as stolen of missing," Perbix told the student.

Actually, the district activated notebook cameras remotely for other reasons, including in the case of Blake Robbins.

In October 2009, Robbins had been issued a loaner laptop after he turned in his for repair of a broken screen; later that same day, school personnel said that he should not have been given a loaner since he had outstanding insurance fees. The IT department activated tracking in an attempt to locate the loaner, but left the photo-snapping feature on for more than two weeks, during which LANrev took 210 photographs and 218 screenshots.

On Oct. 26, Perbix noted a screenshot taken of Robins' laptop that "included an online chat that concerned him;" he later brought it to the attention of George Frazier, the director of information services, and his boss.

In early November, several Harriton High administrators, including Lindy Matsko, an assistant principal at the school, and Steve Klein, the school's principal, met to discuss images captured by Robbins' computer.

"According to Ms. Matsko, Mr. Kline advised her that unless there was additional evidence that gave them a contextual basis for doing so, school officials should not discuss the images with the student or his parents because they involved off-campus activities," the report stated. "Ms. Matsko ultimately decided, about one week later, that it was appropriate to discuss certain seemingly troubling images with Mr. Robbins and/or his parents."

The report also disclosed that tens of thousands of photographs had been captured by the district's LANrev software -- the exact total is unknown because the IT department purged the program's database last year in an attempt to boost performance -- and that in at least two instances, Webcams were activated on the wrong laptops.

"Although we found no evidence that District personnel used TheftTrack to 'spy' on students, or that District personnel surreptitiously downloaded images from the LANrev server, our investigation leaves unresolved questions that raise serious concerns about why so many images were captured without apparent regard for privacy considerations," the report concluded.

Last week, the federal judge overseeing the Robbins' lawsuit issued an order that required Carol Caliero, the district's information systems coordinator, to let the Robbins' attorney make copies of the hard drives of her two personal computers. The order was in response to a motion by the Robbins' lawyer to determine whether Caliero -- along with Perbix, the only school employees allowed to switch on the cameras -- had used the software to spy on students, and had transferred images to her own machines.

Caliero and Perbix, both 12-year veterans of the district, were put on paid administrative leave last February, shortly after the Robbins filed their lawsuit.

The report, which was released to the public late Monday by Lower Merion, can be downloaded from the district's Web site (download PDF).

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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