Will we finally learn the truth about 'Webcamgate'?

The Lower Merion School District will reveal the results of its investigation into how it spied on students via their laptops

By tomorrow we should know a lot more about Webcamgate, the scandal surrounding a tony school district outside Philadelphia and how it used school-issued laptops to spy on its students.

Tonight at a school board meeting, the district will present the results of its internal investigation. I'm guessing this is one school board meeting that will get more than the usual amount of attention from the media -- no cub reporters here.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Refresh your memory on Webcamgate with Cringely's posts "When schools spy on their students, bad things happen" and "High school confidential: Spies, lies, and alibis" | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

The Readers Digest recap: Lawyers for Harriton High student Blake Robbins sued the Lower Merion School District last February, claiming it was illegally spying on students, using Lan Rev "peeping Tom" software that allowed IT admins to remotely activate Webcams on laptops issued by the district to roughly 2,400 students. Supposedly, these cams were only turned on when a laptop went missing (a stupid idea in any case); from what we've since learned, that may not be entirely true.

There are now class-action suits, groups of parents organized around both sides of the debate, tearful angry denials by school officials, Fifth Amendment silence by a key IT admin, claims by students of Webcams spontaneously turning on for no reason, and so on. It's a soap opera for the Internet age.

Since the story broke, the district claimed it activated the cameras 42 times, all for legitimate reasons (it says), and admitted it collected some 56,000 candid snapshots.

Let's just do the math, shall we? (Wait, let me get out my calculator.) Assuming both figures are accurate, that means 1,333.33 pix per incident. The software was set up to snap a picture every 15 minutes, though the activation periods varied for each cam. On average, that works out to a continuous series of still images lasting 13.9 days for each incident. Heck, let's just round up to two weeks.

Is there any reason why you'd need to take two weeks' worth of photos to locate a missing laptop, especially when you already have other ways of tracking it? I don't think so.

The district also says none of those pictures were "salacious or inappropriate," per a report in USA Today, though I suppose that's up for interpretation. Per the Robbins' attorney:

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.

Wired has run one photo of 15-year-old Blake Robbins fast asleep in bed, taken by his Webcam and obtained by his lawyers. Can you say "creepy"? I knew that you could.

Earlier this month Robbins' attorney issued some ugly charges PDF, most of them directed at the IT admin, Carol Cafiero, who until recently had refused to cooperate with the investigation. To wit:

...there are additional webcam pictures and screenshots taken of Blake Robbins which, to date, have not been recovered because the evidence was purged by the IT department... As to Carol Cafiero, based on the discovery to date...there is reason to believe that evidence may be found on her personal home computer of the downloading of the pictures obtained from the LanRev "peeping tom" technology.

Through her attorney, Cafiero issued a series of carefully worded denials PDF, including the rather interesting statement that the 15-year-old Robbins had "no reasonable expectation of privacy" in his own home, because his use of the computer was "unauthorized." Apparently, his family hadn't paid the $55 insurance fee required by the school for home loaners.

In other words: If you don't pay your dues, we can watch you while you sleep. Did I say "creepy" already?

She also turned over her home computer to investigators. Cafiero may well be entirely innocent, but it's not looking good for her from where I'm sitting.

Meanwhile, the feds are claiming a district court judge is keeping them from investigating what went really went on, limiting information only to those involved in the Robbins' civil suit.

Is this a whitewash in the making -- or a hanging? Stay tuned for further developments.

Is this a case of good intentions gone stupid, or something creepier? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This story, "Will we finally learn the truth about 'Webcamgate'?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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