Pa. district accused of student spying puts IT workers on leave

Local police had special access to laptop photographs, lawyer claims

Two IT employees of the suburban Philadelphia school district accused of spying on students by activating the cameras on their school-issued laptops have been placed on administrative leave.

An attorney for one of the employees also claimed that the Lower Merion Police Department knew of the school district's ability to activate the cameras and that a special Web site had been used by the department to view the photographs taken by the laptops.

A spokesman for Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa. today confirmed that Carol Cafiero, information systems coordinator, and Michael Perbix, one of three people with the title of network technician on the district's technology staff Web site , were placed on paid leave two weeks ago. Both have been employed by the district for the last 12 years.

On Feb. 16, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., on behalf of their son Blake, sued Lower Merion, accusing it of spying on students and students' families using the iSight camera in the MacBook laptops issued to each high school student in the district.

According to the original complaint, Blake Robbins was accused by a Harriton High School assistant principal of "improper behavior in his home" and shown a photograph taken by his laptop as evidence. Robbins has said he was accused by the assistant principal of selling drugs and taking pills, but he claimed the pictures taken by his computer's camera showed him eating candy.

A federal judge has issued a consent order barring the district from activating the cameras.

Charles Mandracchia of Mandracchia & McWhirk, LLC, who represents Cafiero, said today that his client has done nothing wrong. "She has not been accused of any wrongdoing of any kind," he said in an interview. "Hiring an attorney is more prophylactic than anything. There's a lawsuit, and she could be called as a witness."

Cafiero has not been called to testify in front of a grand jury, said Mandracchia. The U.S. Attorney's and FBI's offices in Philadelphia are investigating the Robbins' allegations.

Both Mandracchia and Marc Neff, a Philadelphia attorney who represents Perbix, said that their clients had only been following orders when they triggered the laptop cameras. "It was their duty to turn on the camera," Mandracchia told WTXF-TV of Philadelphia in an interview last Friday. "But they would only do that if they received a request from the two high schools, the two buildings, because they had no direct contact with the students, they didn't know the students."

"Every time a tracking device was activated, it was activated at the request of an administrator or another IT person," said Neff.

Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young today declined to answer specific questions related to the administrative leave, citing the ongoing investigation. "The District generally does not comment on personnel matters, but we feel compelled to do so in the interest of two long-time staff members," Young said in a e-mailed statement. "Placing them on administrative leave with pay is not a reflection of any wrongdoing on their part. It is a standard, prudent step in an investigation such as this one and it occurred in conjunction with the start of the review process nearly two weeks ago."

Mandracchia added that the Lower Merion Police Department had been involved in at least some of the efforts to recover lost or stolen laptops using the photographs taken by the MacBooks' camera. "They had a private Web site for some of these pictures, for the Lower Merion Police Department to view, and they were the only ones allowed to view it."

He also argued that Cafiero and Perbix had assumed that turning on the cameras was legal because local law enforcement was involved and knew of the practice. "If the police department is receiving this information, you as an employee have no knowledge of doing anything inappropriate," he said.

Neff was not immediately available Monday for comment. His Web site identifies him as a criminal defense attorney whose office "limits its practice to federal and state criminal defense and related matters, including grand jury investigations, parole matters, and forfeiture cases."

His client, Michael Perbix, had been mentioned in several reports last month as the district IT worker who had praised the tracking functionality of the LANRev software used to locate lost or stolen laptops. "Yes, we have used it. It's a fantastic feature," Perbix said in the promotional Webcast for LANRev.

Absolute Software, the company which acquired LANRev last year, has said it will issue an update to disable the camera feature in the software.

The superintendent of the Lower Merion Police Department, Michael McGrath, declined to comment Sunday on Mandracchia's claims that the department had access to a site where the school district laptop's camera photographs were posted. Instead, McGrath pointed to a statement issued by U.S. Attorney Michael Levy on Feb. 22. In that statement, Levy confirmed an investigation was ongoing, but said that he and other agencies involved would not comment further until the investigation was complete.

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 .

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Knowledge Center.

This story, "Pa. district accused of student spying puts IT workers on leave" was originally published by Computerworld .

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