High school Webcam follies, part II: Dumb and dumber

The Lower Merion School District's 'Webcamgate' scandal continues. Cringely updates us on the latest twists and turns

Though it's not getting quite the 24/7 cable news treatment as it garnered when it first hit the wires, the Webcam scandal in Southeastern Pennsylvania (aka "Webcamgate") is still twisting and turning in unpredictable ways. We still don't know exactly what happened, but we do know there are lessons here for everyone concerned about IT security and personal privacy.

For readers just tuning in, here's the background: In February, the Robbins family of Penn Valley sued the Lower Merion School District after discovering that MacBooks issued to all 2,620 students in the district were equipped with Webcams that could be turned on remotely by school officials. How did they found out? Because the Robbins' 15-year-old son Blake was called into a meeting with the school vice principal, during which he was (they say) shown an image of himself at home working on his school-supplied laptop and was questioned about possible inappropriate behavior. According to one report, the school apparently thought Blake was popping pills when he was really just eating candy.

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The district admitted it used remote Webcams for tracking lost or stolen laptops -- some 42 times over the last year -- without telling anybody about it. That feature is now disabled. The vice principal in question says quite defiantly that "no time have I ever monitored a student via a laptop web cam, nor have I ever authorized the monitoring of a student via security tracking web cam." (She did not, however, confirm or deny showing Blake Robbins a snapshot of him eating Mike-N-Ikes.)

Since then, local and federal law authorities have opened investigations into the school's use of spy cams. The school district itself hired a computer forensics expert to do his own investigation. Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) is planning to hold hearings about the topic in Philly on March 29, if for no other reason than to have something else to talk about besides health care reform.

Here's where it gets twistier.

The two IT admins who had the ability to turn on the cams are on administrative leave pending the outcome of the district investigation (standard operating procedure, says the school district). One of these techs, Mike Perbix (whose voice can be heard in this video bubbling with excitement over the LANrev tracking technology) is cooperating with the investigation. So is the vice principal, Lindy Matsko. However, the other tech, Carol Cafiero, has refused to give a deposition in the case.

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