WebcamGate: IT Staff on Leave, Robbins React to Case Opposition

Investigation continues into how tracking software was used by district

Two Lower Merion School District information technology staffers who had direct access to webcam remote activation software installed on student notebook computers have been placed on paid leave, district officials confirmed Friday.

Information systems coordinator Carol Cafiero and network technician Michael Perbix were assigned to administrative leave last week as the district works to determine how the software was used.

The Lower Merion School District has been embroiled in a national controversy after a class-action lawsuit filed in February claimed the district was spying on students via the webcams installed in their school-issued Apple MacBooks.

Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins says district officials accused him of engaging in "improper behavior" in his home. He also claimed administrators showed him photos taken by his webcam of him sitting in his room.

The Robbins' family then filed Robbins vs. Lower Merion School District on behalf of all district students who used the computers.

The district has maintained that they never spied on students since the accusation was made, but did admit that they used the remote activation software to recover computers deemed lost or stolen.

In a 2008 training video uploaded to YouTube, Perbix can be heard explaining the capabilities of the software.

Once the computer connects to an outside network, the notebook will start sending back screenshots and camera shots if the computer has a built-in camera, he says in the video.

"It's an excellent feature. Yes, we have used it and yes, it has gleamed some results for us," Perbix says in the video.

He says in the past the district has activated the feature for computers they thought were stolen, but were actually misplaced in a classroom.

"I had a good 20 snapshots of the teachers and students using the machines in the classroom," Perbix says.

Attorneys for both employees say their clients have not broken the law.
“Carol did nothing wrong, she followed procedure," Cafiero's lawyer Charles Mandracchia told NBC Philadelphia. "She is not a person who would turn it on unless someone told her.”

The school district agrees saying the decision to place the staff on leave was just procedure.

"Placing them on administrative leave with pay is not a reflection of any wrongdoing on their part," LMSD spokesperson Douglas Young said Friday. "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."

Perbix's lawyer Marc Neff also claims police were aware of the feature and its use to track computers, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As for the lawsuit, not all Lower Merion families want to be part of the action. Parents opposed to the suit launched and packed a meeting in Narberth Tuesday to discuss plans to fight it.

"It needs to end," Jim Mearns said leaving the meeting. "They should install GPS systems in [the computers], say you're sorry to the Robbins and everybody go home."

The Robbins' say anyone affected is more than welcome to join in on the action, but didn't directly address the opposition movement.

“We are just trying to protect the children that are involved here," Holly Robbins said. "They’re only children."

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