At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

Summary: Pennsylvania school officials will not face criminal charges for activating a tracking feature on school-issued laptops that allowed them to spy on students, which resulted in the capture of 56,000 webcam and screenshot images. Meanwhile, the district has approved new laptop policies.

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TOPICS: Software
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School officials in Pennsylvania's Lower Merion School District will not face criminal charges for activating a tracking feature on school-issued webcams that allowed them to capture about 56,000 images of unsuspecting students and their families at home.

Federal prosecutors said today that they will not file charges against the district or its employees, according to an Associated Press report. Investigators found no evidence of criminal intent by those who activated the feature and/or reviewed the images.

Also today, the district announced new policies for its One-to-One laptop program. In a statement, the district explained the new policies and emphasized how it would be allowed to activate the tracking feature in the future. The district wrote (with bold emphasis coming from the district):

The most important changes to the policy concern theft tracking, remote access and the privacy of students' files on District laptops. The School District will only access a student's computer with the explicit written authority from parents/guardians and students. School personnel will only access a student's laptop remotely to resolve a technical problem only if the student formally gives the district permission to do so. If the student chooses, he or she can decline the remote access and take the laptop directly to the school's IT center for repair. Theft tracking software will only be activated if a student and parent/guardian file a police report and provide a signed "remote file access consent" form and a signed incident report to the principal verifying that a laptop has been lost or stolen. Theft tracking software would never have the capability of capturing screen shots, audio, video and on-screen text.

An investigation conducted by lawyers hired by the school district concluded in May that school administrators meant no harm, though they did act carelessly and failed to use good judgement in using the remote access program. In addition, the investigation found no evidence that school board members or school administrators knew how the feature worked.

It's somewhat disappointing that federal prosecutors aren't holding someone responsible for this blatant stomping of personal privacy rights - not only of students, but also members of their families who had no idea that district officials were watching them at home. Maybe the whole "we didn't mean to" argument would work if it were only one or two students affected or a dozen or so images accidentally had been captured. But we're talking 56,000 images here.

Fifty-six thousand images. How is that an accident?

You'll recall that a student and his family exposed what was happening when school officials approached him with an image of himself at home when they suspected that he was taking drugs. It turned out that he was eating candy.

The student and his parents have filed a civil suit against the district, its board of directors and the Superintendent. It alleges violations of the electronic Communications Privacy Act, The Computer Fraud Abuse Act and the Stored Communications Act, among others.

That case is on-going.

Topic: Software

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  • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

    "But we?re talking 56,000 images here...Five thousand, six hundred images. How is that an accident?"


    5,600 or 56,000?
    msalzberg
    • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

      @msalzberg Excellent catch! It's 56,000 and I went in and fixed my post. (Kind of messes up the emphasis when I get it wrong, huh?) Thanks for pointing it out...
      sldiaz
    • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

      @msalzberg
      The article quotes the number 56,000 three times...
      never mentioned Five thousand, six hundred
      ..........What's your question?
      flightLdr
  • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

    "I didn't know I was breaking the law" shouldn't be allowed as a defense in this case. There are too many images. They also activated this on computers that were not reported lost or stolen. Consequences should include more than a written policy change. I wish the families the best of luck in their civil lawsuit.
    Admin71
    • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

      @Bookmark71 This is probably the most important point in the whole story. How many times have we been told that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it? Do we now have a separate legal standard for school administrators?
      carno
      • Government protecting itself against citizens

        @carno Government prosecutors have a different legal standard for other Government employees. Remember Tim Geithner and the IRS.
        Jeff Richardson
  • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

    I wonder if the "I didn't know it was wrong" will work with the RIAA.
    RonCri
  • Webcam spying on students was no crime...It just doesn't add up.

    "Investigators found no evidence of criminal intent by those who activated the feature and/or reviewed the images." From a previous post: "In at least five instances, district employees kept the Webcams on and took pictures for days."
    Isn't peeking in a minor's bedroom window (via electronic means) a crime in itself?
    "In addition, the investigation found no evidence that school board members or school administrators knew how the feature worked." "...school officials approached him with an image of himself at home when they suspected that he was taking drugs. It turned out that he was eating candy."
    For not knowing how it worked, they certainly seem to know how to access the images. What are they talking about with "not know(ing) how it worked" --not knowing TCP & IP protocols?
    In my mind these quotes just do not add up. Seems to me that someone is changing the context to get the desired result.
    Norm76
  • But we?re talking 56,000 images here.

    If the school district used the remote webcam feature every day for three years that would average out to more than 50 pictures a day. That's fifty pictures a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for three years. This was an appalling invasion of students privacy. "No evidence of criminal intent" or not, it was still a crime and should be prosecuted. Lack of intent does not remove responsibility for criminal activity. This was no accident and was not infrequent.
    sismoc
    • That statement is false.

      @sismoc

      "Lack of intent does not remove responsibility for criminal activity. This was no accident and was not infrequent."

      Um, it can. Depends on how the crime is *defined*. See here:

      http://www.quizlaw.com/criminal_law/what_are_specific_intent_cri.php

      Law doesn't follow logic, morals, or anything else. It's a case of "this is what it *says*. Do it or we bash your head in with a rock/electrocute you/gas you/cage you for life".

      I'm betting the DOJ wanted to nail them but didn't think it could prove intent. All the school authorities would have to do is look ignorant--which they *are*...

      Now if any of those images had shown two students having sex, well, that would be DIFFERENT, now wouldn't it?

      Fortunately or not, it appears none of the pics did. Or their feet wouldn't have touched the ground before they found themselves in jail as sex offenders.
      wolf_z
    • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

      @sismoc thats 56000 images over 2300 different laptops. Thats only 24 images per laptop! One student had 210 images and over 200 screen captures in a 2 week period. So about 400 snaps in 2 weeks... thats about 29 a day. In short, not an unreasonable number.
      doc7
  • Two Legal Systems

    Your US law makes more active use of the civil law system than ours. It seems to me as a Canadian viewer, that civil law is invoked often where criminal law did not result in the desired end. Quite often it brings remedy, as in the O. J. Simpson case, where the rules of evidence are more relaxed than in criminal law.
    In other words, if you can't get them one way, get them another way, another kick at the can.
    Whereas, in Canada, it seems to me that civil law is appealed to only when criminal law does not apply as the arena of litigation.
    Not as I see the use of US civil law; a parallel legal system often used consecutive to failure of satisfaction via criminal law.
    And this appears to be what's happening here.
    This is my take on it all. I'd like input from other observers of it 'all'.
    PreachJohn
    • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

      @preachjohn
      Almost true. What I've seen more often in Canada is actually the opposite as the US. If a crime that also involved personal damages results in a conviction, the victims ALSO turn to the civil court to extract damages from the criminal (convictions make it quite easy to prove damages in a lawsuit). So it's more of a "pay twice" type of deal, which is only fair since it seems even convicted criminals seem to get off pretty easy here. The lack of a criminal conviction actually makes it harder to prove damages in a lawsuit, so it's less likely to see a lawsuit pick up where a criminal trial left off.
      daftkey
      • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

        @daftkey: You don't come across as daft at all! lol
        I wanted to know if my impression is correct. Now I have to research. How else can I ever be satisfied? Thanks for your response.
        PreachJohn
  • It's a simple case of one authority stroking another

    The DOJ authority is giving the school authorities a pass, It would have been a completely different outcome if the one who did this was a small business or individual. The DOJ has immense resources at its disposal, both in statute and in prosecutorial powers. There are so many Federal laws with overlaps that almost any defendant can be charged with tens or hundreds of different offenses, just take a look at the "Blago" trial now ongoing.

    Prosecutors are allowed considerable leeway in Federal courts, in front of judges who are mostly comprised of former prosecutors. Intent is often substantiated only by circumstantial evidence or only inferred, and many laws require no intent be shown. Many laws are now being written with "prima facie" language that do not require intent, only evidence of the incident or offense.

    So my take is that the US Attorney *could* have prosecuted or pursued a plea bargain, but chose not to out of "professional courtesy" to fellow authorities.
    terry flores
  • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

    I always thought this was way out of proportion.
    They are School Computers, as such they should have the right to activate anything on the computer at any time. It is, after all, their property. Companies track company cell phone useage, why shouldn't a school track it's property? As for the number of images, I bet the software automatically captures at a predefined time period, not like the people in charge physically "clicked" each picture.
    doc7
    • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

      @doc@...
      Nope. The school could track the computer usage- much like any company- but accessing their systems without their knowledge, and outside of the timeframe of when they were being actively used and outside the environment of the school is out of bounds.
      I can track the usage of an employees cell phone usage, but I can't access the content of the calls, nor could I turn on the camera to capture random images.
      Just because it's "My Machine" doesnt' mean that I can use it to violate someone's privacy. Usage logs- fine, Screen captures- fine, email on my server- fine. Images of the environment- NO.
      Accessing the laptop's camera does NOTHING to help in the tracking of the asset. There's no reason for remotely accessing the camera at all- not even during a remote support session.
      In addition, since they used images captured to monitor the activity of students (and non-students) in their private residence and to take punitive action based on them it doesn't matter if they were random or not- they shouldn't have taken them.
      davesully
      • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

        @davesully
        Extremely well said Dave! IMHO, Wiretap laws apply here.
        No judge authorized this invasion of privacy!
        flightLdr
    • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

      @doc@...: "Companies track company cell phone usage, why shouldn't a school track it's property?" Sure they do, but they don't listen in on the conversations that take place on them. That is very different from what those school officials did. Using a laptop's webcam to take pictures of students and their family, at home, when there is no reason given by the student and/or their family, is a gross invasion of privacy of that family.

      Just because the DOJ has decided not to prosecute, doesn't mean that what has been done is okay. We are talking about 56,000 images here. This does not happen by accident, regardless of what you think: "As for the number of images, I bet the software automatically captures at a predefined time period, not like the people in charge physically "clicked" each picture." As a justification for the number of images, that statement is irrelevant. Whether it was done manually, or set in the software to capture at predefined intervals, has no bearing.

      How would you like it if your child was in possession of a laptop, issued by their school, and you were photographed having sex with your partner, wife or whatever, whoever? They gave themselves the right to activate the webcam whenever they wanted to, and this is the upshot of that action.

      So, why are you defending these people for what they did? It may not have been illegal, but it most definitely is wrong by any reasonable definition.
      RealAusTech
    • RE: At Lower Merion schools, webcam spying on students was no crime

      @doc@... No. "Watching the captured photos was like a LMSD soap opera" should tell you that (one of the administrators said that, as I recall.)

      And it's illegal to put recording devices in school changerooms for a reason. Even if they did catch someone stealing out of someone's bag, they'd be slapped with 2 civil lawsuits and upwards of 5 years in jail.
      The same applies to everyone, even schools.

      The administrators are lucky, very lucky, that the cameras didn't catch any student in the nude. Even one would have gotten the whole lot of them thrown into jail.

      Is the charge for creating child pornography "Way out of proportion?"
      R220