A covert surveillance system that Pennsylvania high school officials used to track lost and stolen laptops wound up secretly capturing thousands of images, including photographs of students in their homes, Web sites they visited, and excerpts of their online chats, according to a lawsuit filed by a local family against the school district.
During the two weeks that clandestine spy program was in use, it was activated several hundred times-- in each instance, a tiny camera atop a school-issued laptop snapped a photo, software inside copied the laptop screen image, and a locating device recorded the Internet address. The system was designed to take a new picture every 15 minutes until it was turned off.
The Philadelphia school district has already confessed to possessing over 400 secret photos of 15-year-old Blake Robbins and his family members-- including pictures of Blake partially undressed and of Blake sleeping in his own bed. Each time, the spy program fired the images off to network servers at the school district.
Back at district offices, the Robbins' lawsuit alleges, employees with access to the images marveled at the tracking software. It was like a window into "a little soap opera," a staffer is quoted as saying in an e-mail to Carol Cafiero, the administrator running the program. "I know, I love it," Cafiero replied. The district's records show that the controversial tracking system captured thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots from many other students in their private residences.
Robbins and his parents say they first learned of the technology when an assistant principal at Blake's high school confronted the teen with an image collected by the tracking software. The image showed him with a handful of Mike and Ike candies-- which the administrator thought were illegal pills.
Senator Arlen Specter has introduced legislation to close what he said was a loophole in federal wiretap laws that seemingly allowed the unauthorized (and potentially illegal) monitoring by the school district. "Many of us expect to be subject to certain kinds of video surveillance when we leave our homes and go out each day - at the ATM, at traffic lights, or in stores, for example," Specter, who is running for reelection, said. "What we do not expect is to be under visual surveillance in our homes, in our bedrooms and, most especially, we do not expect it for our children in our homes."