Lower Merion Webcam-Gate
|Courtesy of philly.com|
Last night, Ballard Spahr released its investigative report of Lower Merion School District's laptop tracking program the one involving Blake Robbins, if you recall.
You can click here to download a PDF of the whole 72-page doozy. Or, if that's not your jam, check back on Thursday for City Paper's highlights of the report.
PREVIOUSLY>> Webcam-gate, now with pictures!
|Courtesy of Philly.com|
Apparently, victim blaming isn't just for victims of sexism or racism, anymore. It works for victims of privacy invasion, too! Lower Merion information systems coordinator Carol Cafiero's attorney said as much in a court filing yesterday, in reference to Blake Robbins, the student who was photographed unwittingly via his school-issued laptop Webcam:
Cafiero who is on paid leave while the district investigates the laptop controversy claimed Robbins lost any legal protection from the Web-camera security system when he took a school laptop home without permission.
"When you're in the home, you should have a legitimate expectation of privacy," [Cafiero's attorney Charles] Mandracchia said in an interview. "But if you're taking something without permission, how can you cry foul when you shouldn't have it anyway?"
I guess someone's momma didn't teach them that two wrongs don't make a right. This argument seems especially dubious now, after news came out that the district used the Webcam feature to take nearly 56,000 images of students (as in, not just Robbins). And while the feature was usually used on laptops that had went missing, in at least five cases officials let the Webcam continue taking photos for days and even weeks after they were found.
PREVIOUSLY>> Webcam-gate, now with pictures!
I will try to process this story in my brain a little more and write something more cogent about it tomorrow. But, anyway, it seems Webcam-gate has gotten a little weirder: According to Blake Robbins' lawyers, the Lower Merion School District's super-spy Webcam gizmo shot pictures of the kid in his bed, sleeping lots of them and then zipped those photos around into the District's network.
And, it seems the lawyers have them.
In the filing, the Penn Valley family claims the district's records show that the controversial tracking system captured more than 400 photos and screen images from 15-year-old Blake Robbins' school-issued laptop during two weeks last fall, and that "thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes."
Robbins, a sophomore at Harriton High School, and his parents, Michael and Holly Robbins, contend e-mails turned over to them by the district suggest [Carol] Cafiero [the system's administrator] "may be a voyeur" who might have viewed some of the photos on her home computer.
The motion says Cafiero, who has been placed on paid leave, has failed to turn that computer over to the plaintiffs despite a court order to do so, and asks a judge to sanction her.
Cafiero's lawyer Thursday night disputed the suggestion that his client had downloaded any such photos to her home computer. Lawyer Charles Mandracchia said Cafiero has cooperated with federal investigators and is willing to let technicians hired by the district examine her computer if the judge so orders.
He also said Robbins' attorney had never asked him for Cafiero's personal computer. "He's making this up because his case is falling apart," Mandracchia said.
In this week's A Million Stories, we explored the messy Webcam scandal that's going down at Lower Merion School District. The district insists that it only peered through students' Webcams in order to find lost or stolen laptops, and did so using a security software called LANrev. Insanely enough, Douglas Young, the district's spokesperson, told us that it wasn't the only school district using such software: "The software feature isn't just utilized in this school district," says Young. "It's utilized by other school districts and organizations." (He said he couldn't name any offhand.)
Dude wasn't kidding. Young might be onto something. In the thoroughly creepy clip above from the PBS documentary Digital Nation, the assistant principal of Bronx's middle school IS 339, Daniel Ackerman, shows exactly how he can watch kids through their Webcams what software or application he does it with, though, is unclear. Just wait for the part where he says, "They don't even realize that we're watching." Oy. Also: "I always like to mess with them and take their [Photo Booth] picture."
Now, it's unclear if Ackerman watches students from their homes, which is what Lower Merion is accused of doing, but still the students don't even realize he's watching them? Seriously, he thought that was OK? Be sure to watch this clip on PBS' site, too (it's under part four). Not only is the doc great in general, but the reporter (whose face is obscured in the YouTube video) has an absolutely stunned, unamused look on her face as Ackerman is laughing about the whole thing.
UPDATE: I wasn't clear enough earlier about whether or not Ackerman was using LANrev to view these students indeed, from this clip, it's impossible to know.
RELATED: Inky: Laptop family lives in Main Line mansion, doesnt like to pay the power bill
RELATED: So, um, did the kid make it up?
RELATED: Breaking: Lower Merion School District admits it's used Webcam "security feature" more than once
The Inky has an interesting new twist on Webcamgate today (h/t to the Clog commenters for hipping me; I hadn't read the paper this morning).
The vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission could scarcely contain his scorn.
Before the commission was yet another appeal from a Philadelphia-area family, again seeking a break on unpaid electric and gas bills that by last year were closing in on $30,000.
This family lived in a $986,000 house on the Main Line. The breadwinner, until recently, had earned well more than $100,000 per year. Yet he and his wife were in hock to creditors, ranging from Uncle Sam to their former synagogue - and had regularly been stiffing Peco Energy for five years, breaking payment plan after payment plan.
"Our procedures," the commission's Tyrone J. Christy wrote in a Dec. 17 motion, "were not meant to allow customers living in $986,000 houses, with incomes in excess of $100,000 per year, to run up arrearages approaching $30,000."
The debtors in question were insurance broker Michael Robbins and his wife, Holly, who now find themselves in the national spotlight after suing the Lower Merion School District, saying it allegedly spied on their child at home via a Web cam on a school-issued laptop.
What's more, it seems the reason Blake's computer may have been considered stolen and hence, why the district may have snapped a picture of Blake, at home, popping Mike and Ikes or whatever the hell he was doing is because the debt-ridden family declined to pay the $55 insurance fee that allows students to take their Macbooks home.
The Robbins' attorney, Mark Haltzman, says these are questions newspapers shouldn't be asking.
"I absolutely advised them, because I know the low level that newspaper people will go to for a story," Haltzman said yesterday, "even if it has nothing to do with the merits of the case."
"Why does that matter?" Haltzman said when asked about the debts this week. "This is typical of any time someone stands up for their rights. Everyone tried to find a way to bring them down."
Even so, it was the apparent failure to pay a fee - a $55 insurance payment to permit the Robbinses' son Blake to take his laptop home from Harriton High School - that might have prompted the district to activate the Web cam.
Right. Because you get to accuse school officials of spying on their children in their homes their bedrooms, even and no one's going to question your motives.
Doesn't make the school district's policy choices correct, but at least the pieces are starting to fall in place.
I didn't make Harriton High assistant principal Lindy Matkso's press conference/statement reading this morning, on account of the endless, degenerating hours of meetings that consume my Wednesdays, but from the Inky's account, it seems Matsko who, according to the lawsuit filed by Blake Robbins last week, allegedly obtained a picture of Robbins supposedly involved in some sort of illicit act (later, we heard it was pill-popping, or maybe candy-eating) from the Webcam of the laptop the district issues students simply, and vehemently, denied any wrongdoing, adding that she would never spy on students or punish them for stuff they did off school grounds. She took no questions.
In a voice that swelled and quavered with apparent anger, Harriton High School Assistant Vice Principal Lindy Matsko this morning decried the "many falsehoods and misperceptions" about her role in the Lower Merion school's webcam tumult sparked by a student's lawsuit.
"At no time have I ever monitored a student via a laptop webcam," said Matsko, who is in her 25th year working for Lower Merion School District, "nor have I ever authorized the monitoring of a student via a laptop webcam, either at school or in the home. And I never would."
Matsko, who was speaking for the first time since the suit was filed last week, did not take questions after the six-minute statement she delivered in the Center City office of her attorney, Dennis Abramson.
She said she has been the recipient of "numerous" mean and threatening emails.
Reading from a sheet of paper that shook in her hands, Matsko said allegations she participated in monitoring Harriton sophomore Blake Robbins in his home via the camera of his school-issued MacBook were "offensive, abhorrent and outrageous," her volume rising after every word.
OK, I understand that she can't answer questions. There is, indeed, a federal lawsuit. But her statement, like the one the school district itself issued Feb. 18, the day the lawsuit went public, raises more questions than it answers: Clearly, the school district had a system that allowed it to remotely activate a Webcam and snap a picture. The district has said it used such a device 42 times in 14 months, to catch laptop thieves. The district has also said that it made a mistake by not alerting parents about their ability to do so.
And at some point, Blake Robbins found out about this. He says it was when Matsko tried to punish him for allegedly popping pills at home, which he says were candies. According to the district, the only way it would have used its remote activated doohickey was if Blake's computer was reported stolen. That leaves, to my mind, three possibilities: 1.) Robbins' computer was reported stolen by someone, although the lawsuit says the computer in question was his, and the district has never alleged otherwise. 2.) There is no picture of Robbins, he made the whole thing up, and he and his family and their lawyers uncovered this Webcam thing through some other means, though one would presume that school district would have mentioned something about this in the last week. 3.) Robbins' computer wasn't reported stolen, the district took his picture anyway, and everything alleged in the lawsuit is basically true.
Am I missing something? I mean, I think the district needs to answer one question (among a great many, but for starters): Did it, in fact, have a picture of Blake engaged in some sort of wrongdoing, no matter how that image was obtained?
Matsko may well be scapegoated here; I don't mean to imply that she did something shady, because I really have no idea what's going on. I mean, seriously: No school official could be cavalier or dumb enough to think they could spy on kids and no one would ever be the wiser, right? I doubt it. But these stories aren't adding up. If the school district can come out and say that Blake Robbins is lying, why hasn't it done so? In lawsuits, people categorically deny charges all the time; it's not unusual or improper.
That leads me to believe there's an element of truth in what he's saying.
Anybody seeing this tale spin a different way? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Editor's note: Yesterday marked the first hearing in that bizarre Lower Merion Webcam-gate lawsuit. Intern Christine Adkins was there, and files this report:
The Lower Merion School Board fiasco continued Monday when attorneys met with US District Court Judge Jan E. DuBios to work out a temporary restraining order in the potentially class-action case filed by the parents of 16-year-old Blake Robbins, whose privacy was allegedly invaded by school district officials.
The first 45 minutes of the hearing featured school district attorney Arthur Makadon and Mark Haltzman, the Robbinses' attorney, going through a stream of objections as to the specific wording of the would-be restraining order to prevent the district from essentially deleting data that may be of use to the plaintiffs as the case moves forward. The image-conscious district didnt like the word injunction; Haltzman wanted to use prohibited. Though in the judicial world, wording is everything, one would assume that practicing attorneys could agree to a few vocabulary terms in under an hour. Not so. And as you sit there, taking this all in, suddenly you find yourself wondering if you will be found tomorrow in the same courtroom, roused by a security officer, comatose and mumbling SAT vocabulary lists.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed an amicus brief in support of Robbins' case. However, an ACLU attorney, who had conference called-in for the hearing, said the civil rights group didn't intend to actively participate in the suit.
The event concluded two and half hours after this allegedly short hearing began, revised order agreed upon, signed and entered into record. The new order, which does not use the words restraining order, forces the participants to select a mutual forensic experts for analyzing and copying Robbins laptop, prohibits district Webcams from being remotely activated, forbids the school district from contacting members of Robbins class concerning the lawsuit, and prevents the district from providing updates to parents without the consent of Robbins counsel at least six hours prior.
Exciting stuff, really.
NBC 10 got an interview with the kid (and his lawyer) at the center of the Lower Merion School District scandal. According to their story, we now know the supposed inappropriate behavior that the School District snapped a photo of, via Blake's Web cam: The district thought they caught him popping pills. Blake Robbins says they were Mike-N-Ike's candies.
The 16-year-old from Penn Valley, Pa. claims Matsko showed him photos remotely taken with the built-in webcam on his MacBook, according to the suit.
In the photos, the teen was allegedly holding two pill-shaped objects, says Robbins' attorney Mark Haltzman. School officials believed they were drugs, while the family maintains they were simply Mike-N-Ike candy.
"They were trying to allege thatâ¦those were pills and somehow he was involved in selling drugs," Halzman said Friday.
Of course, the district told us yesterday, in so many words, that Blake's computer had to have been reported stolen, or else they wouldn't have activated the security contraption on his MacBook. The AP has reported that district officials have said that only two tech department folks had the authority to activate that security feature, which, of course, raises the question: How the hell did a Harriton High assistant principal get her hands on a photo of Blake eating candy, or whatever? Also, as Holly reported yesterday, the district has done this before, though how often remains unclear. From the NBC story:
If the allegations of spying prove to be true, Blake may not be the only victim. Other students claim they've seen their webcam go live while off school grounds and worry they've been spied on too.
âOccasionally a green light would go on, on your computer which would kind of give you the feeling that somebody's watching you,â Harriton High School student Drew Scheier told NBC Philadelphia Thursday.
The FBI is reportedly investigating, as is the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office; the Inky is reporting that federal prosecutors have issued subpoenas. Buckle yourselves in, folks: this thing's gonna get a whole lot weirder before it's over.
- Ask A Man-About-Town
- Award Tour
- Bad Idea Factory
- Below the Curve
- Brian Hickey
- Budget Fuss
- City Council
- City Hall
- CP Abroad
- CP in the Community
- Criminal Justice System
- Day Tripper
- Death and Taxes
- Delaware River
- Dubious Distinction
- End of Days
- Film Fest
- Financial Meltdown
- Free Library
- Gay Stuff
- Get Lit
- Hall Monitor
- Health Care
- Hello, Kitty
- Ice Cubes
- In Memoriam
- Marcellus Shale
- MUST READ
- Mysterious Mysteries
- Non Sequitur
- PA politics 2010
- Parking Wars
- Parks and Recreation
- People Send Us This Stuff
- Philadelphia Police
- Philadelphia Union
- Philly From Scratch
- philly madness
- President Obama
- Print Edition
- Readers Write
- Real Estate
- Rock Bottom
- Screwing Philly
- So Lush
- Sporting Life
- Sports Complex
- State Politicians
- State Politics
- Street Art
- Stuff We Like
- Taxi Drivers
- Tech Fetish
- The Budget Crisis
- The City Paper
- The CLOG
- The Human Condition
- The Mayor
- The Phightin Phils
- The World
- Things that make you go hm
- Tinfoil Hats Off
- Under the Table
- Under the Tables
- Urban Development
- Urban Planning
- urban wildlife
- Video Poker
- We Call Shenanigans
- Web Junk
- Weekend Omnibus
- White House
- What We've Found
- Women's Issues
- Flyered Up!
- How 'Bout That Weather?
- it's always sunny in philadelphia
- get out
- 10-track mind
- Bruce Being Bruce
- Gigantic Surprises
- Hello Canary
- Hello Puppy
- get lost
- Inside The Fishbowl
- Library Closings
- Local Support
- Night Moves
- Skeeze Police
- State Politicians Screwing Philly
- That's a cool stencil!
- Things We See
- This Week
- This Week in Oates
- University City
- What we don't heart
- what we heart
- Feeling Guilty
- Broke in Philly
- Dear Paper Doll
- Do A Good Thing
- Film Fest Schism
- G20-20 Vision
- Great American Heroes
- Pearl Jam Week
- Stars of the Photostream
- Lower Merion Webcam-Gate
- The Cycle
- Equality Forum
- Bureaucrat of the Week