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

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.

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.