Action News learns of meeting in webcam spying case

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Lower Merion, there may be a scent of settlement in the air.

In an update Wednesday night, Action News has learned from very reliable sources that the Robbins family met with the president of the school board to discuss a possible settlement in the webcam spying case.

That meeting was part of a larger conference to determine how the district is to allow students to view photos taken of them by the web cams in their school issued computers.

The following is Action News' report from Tuesday:

The FBI interviewed a key player in the Lower Merion School District's laptop webcam controversy on Tuesday.

IT professional Carol Cafiero met with agents at her lawyer's office in Skippack, Pa. in the ongoing fallout after it was revealed school-issued laptops took tens of thousands of pictures of students with their webcams.

Cafiero is only one of two IT staffers who were authorized to turn on the cameras.

She contends she was only following orders, and was not using the cameras to view the children in their homes. Cafiero added she had nothing to do with activating the camera on the laptop of sophomore Blake Robbins, whose lawsuit prompted the investigation.

Robbins' lawyer, Mark Halztman, has previously implied that the IT staffers, including Cafiero, were enjoying their own so-called "Lower Merion soap opera" and that Cafiero might be a voyeur.

Cafiero's lawyer says it's an outrageous allegation and he plans to seek disciplinary action against Haltzman.

After she was interviewed by the FBI on Tuesday, Cafiero told Action News "The allegations against me are outrageous and false. I am not a voyeur."

Last week Cafiero invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked if she downloaded images from the laptop cameras to her personal hard drive.

Cafiero remains on leave pending the outcome of the investigation. She said she has nothing to hide, has done nothing wrong, and freely answered all of the questions the FBI had for her on Tuesday morning.

Webcams took 56,000 pictures

At a school board meeting Monday night, the lawyer for the district said that the laptop cameras took 56,000 pictures of both students and their computer desktops over a two year period.

More than 38,000 of those images came from six laptops that were stolen in September, 2008. Those laptops were tracked by police and an arrest was made.

But the district now acknowledges that the stolen laptops continued to capture some 13,000 images even after the computers were recovered by police.

There were also 15 unexplained activations, involving an unreported number of images, where investigators haven't been able to identify why a student's computer was being monitored at all.

"It's clear there were students who were likely captured in their homes," said lawyer Henry Hockeimer, who represents the Lower Merion School District.

The tracking program took images every 15 minutes, usually capturing the webcam photo of the user and a screen shot at the same time. The program was sometimes turned on for weeks or months at a time, Hockeimer said.

"There were no written policies or procedures governing the circumstances surrounding activating the program and the circumstances regarding turning off the activations," Hockeimer said.

Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins is suing the district for invasion of privacy.

The district photographed Robbins 400 times during a 15-day period last fall, sometimes as he slept in bed or was half-dressed, according to his lawyer, Mark Haltzman. Other times, the district captured screen shots of instant messages or video chats the Harriton High School sophomore had with friends, he said.

"Not only was Blake Robbins being spied upon, but every one of the people he was IM chatting with were spied upon," said Haltzman, whose lawsuit alleges wiretap and privacy violations. "They captured pictures of people that have nothing to do with Harriton. It could be his cousin from Connecticut."

Robbins was one of about 20 students who had not paid the $55 insurance fee required to take the laptops home but was the only one tracked, Haltzman said.

The attorney for the Lower Merion School District says none of the images captured students in an inappropriate or compromising way. The school district's full report is expected in two weeks. The district says those numbers could change.

Meanwhile, a federal magistrate is coordinating efforts to allow students whose images were snapped to see those pictures sometime this week.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, has introduced a bill to include webcam surveillance under the federal wiretap statute.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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