School escapes charges in Webcam spying case

Employees at Pennsylvania's Lower Merion School District will not face criminal charges over secretly taking Webcam photos of students via laptops they had brought home.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

A Pennsylvania school that was caught secretly snapping photos of students via laptop Webcams will not face criminal charges in the case.

Triggered by complaints and a civil suit by Harriton High School student Blake Robbins in February that he was photographed at home without his knowledge, the FBI and local officials launched an investigation to determine if the Lower Merion School District illegally misused the Webcams.

But federal and local prosecutors looking into the incident were unable to prove criminal intent on the part of school employees and therefore could not prosecute the case, according to U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger.

"After a thorough review of the evidence in this matter by my office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, the Montgomery County Detectives, and the Lower Merion Police Department, I have concluded that bringing criminal charges is not warranted in this matter," Memeger said in a statement. "We have not found evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent," he added.

The Lower Merion School District found itself under the spotlight following the suit by Robbins, who alleged that school employees had photographed him 400 times in a two-week period late last year at times when he was partially undressed or sleeping.

The allegation brought to light that the district had activated the Webcams on student laptops over a 14-month period through the use of a remote control system. School officials said that the tracking system was set up only to locate lost or stolen laptops, but they soon admitted that the software had stayed active even after a laptop was found. As a result, the program took images every 15 minutes, capturing a total of 56,000 pictures in total, according to the Associated Press.

During the course of the investigation, two employees at the district were put on administrative leave, while the photos of the students were all handed over to the local police department. The school itself was issued a court order restraining it from activating any more Webcams, though by that time it had already shut down the tracking feature on its own.

From its end, the school district has consistently maintained that it did nothing wrong and welcomed the decision by the U.S. Attorney.

"We are very pleased with today's decision by the U.S. Attorney's Office, which supports the findings of our internal investigation and follows last night's approval of new laptop policies by the school board," Christopher McGinley, Superintendent of Lower Merion School District, said in a statement.

The school district has since changed its laptop policies, now promising that it will not access a laptop without authority from the student and parents and will only do so to remotely resolve a technical problem. Tracking software will only be activated if the student and parents file a police report indicating that the laptop has been lost or stolen, but the software will not have the ability to trigger screenshots.