Surprisingly, no criminal charges will be filed against a suburban Philadelphia school district that secretly snapped tens of thousands of webcam photographs and screen shots on laptops issued to students. The FBI and federal prosecutors announced this week that criminal wrongdoing by Lower Merion School District employees could not be proved.
None of the images captured appeared to be salacious or inappropriate, school officials have said. The district said it remotely activated the software to find 80 missing laptops in the past two years. About 38,000 of the images were taken over several months from six computers reported stolen from a locker room. The tracking program took images every 15 minutes, usually capturing the webcam photo of the user and a screen shot at the same time. The district claims that none of the images captured were inappropriate or intrusive.
District officials said its technology staff only activated the remote tracking system to try to find laptops that had been reported lost or stolen. But the district soon acknowledged that the software system sometimes remained activated for weeks or months, even after a laptop was found — causing the district to capture 56,000 webcam photographs and screen shots from student laptops.
The FBI investigated the wealthy district for possible wiretap violations after a student’s civil lawsuit exposed the issue. Lower Merion High School student Blake Robbins alleged the district photographed him 400 times in a 15-day period last fall, sometimes as he slept in his bedroom or was half-dressed.
Robbins’ lawsuit is pending, and a second student has joined him in suing the district over the alleged electronic spying. Robbins asserts that the district also captured video chats and instant messages that Robbins exchanged with friends, and maintains that he never reported his laptop missing or stolen, and doesn’t know why the district deployed the surveillance software on his computer. He was one of about 20 students who had not paid the $55 insurance fee required to take the laptops home but was the only one tracked.
On Monday, the school board decised to prohibit the remote use of the tracking software without the written consent of students and their parents or guardians. The policy was recommended by a task force formed in the wake of the February lawsuit.