No criminal charges in Lower Merion webcam scandal

Posted: August 18, 2010

In hindsight, it was a boneheaded blunder in a top-rated school district: Secretly activating the webcams on high-school students' laptops and snapping thousands of photos and screen shots without their permission.

Fortunately for the Lower Merion School District, not every invasion of privacy is a federal crime.

U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger and local police announced yesterday that the investigation stemming from the "Webcamgate" scandal would not result in criminal charges.

"For the government to prosecute a criminal case, it must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person charged acted with criminal intent," Memeger said in a statement. "We have not found evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent."

"This would appear to be a matter to be resolved in civil court," Lower Merion Police Superintendent Michael McGrath said in an e-mail.

While the elite Montgomery County district can start the school year without an FBI investigation looming overhead, officials are still grappling with the scandal's fallout - two unresolved federal lawsuits, seven-digit legal bills and an insurance provider that doesn't want to pick up the tab.

The controversial theft-tracking software was made public in February, when Harriton High sophomore Blake Robbins and his family contended in a lawsuit that school officials had used "Peeping Tom" technology installed on his school-issued Apple MacBook to spy on Robbins inside his Penn Valley home. Last month, Lower Merion High grad Jalil Hasan filed a similar invasion-of-privacy lawsuit.

Nearly 58,000 webcam photos and screen shots were later retrieved from the district's databases, including photos of Blake Robbins sleeping and partially undressed after getting out of the shower and of Robbins' friends participating in video chats.

The district's internal investigation found no evidence that employees intentionally misused the technology to "spy" on students. But e-mails released in May show that district employees had been aware that Robbins was in possession of the laptop and had taken it home, yet they activated the tracking software anyway - and left it running for two weeks.

This week, the school board unanimously adopted a more transparent set of technology policies that, among other things, prohibit school employees from remotely accessing laptops without permission of students or parents.

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