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    Update on Pennsylvania School Webcam Controversy: No Federal Charges

    To recap: In February, the Robbins family filed a lawsuit — Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (pdf) — alleging that the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania misused the 2,300 Webcam-enabled laptops it issued to students in order to remotely peep into the students’ homes, take photographs and violate their privacy. The school district said it used the webcams only to track school-issued laptops that it thought were lost, stolen or inadvertently taken without permission.

    In May, lawyers and computer experts hired by the district to investigate the case released a report (pdf) that said there was “overzealous and questionable use of technology by [Information Services] personnel without any apparent regard for privacy considerations or sufficient consultation with administrators.” Later that month, a federal judge “permanently banned the Lower Merion School District from using webcams or other intrusive technology to secretly monitor students through their school-issued laptops.” Recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Lower Merion School District’s school board unanimously passed new policies “to govern the use and tracking of student laptops and other technology” to avoid a repeat of the recent controversy, which has cost the district “nearly $1 million in legal fees and expenses.”

    Now, the FBI has announced that it has completed its investigation into the webcam  incident and federal officials would not be filing criminal charges. In a press release, United States Attorney Zane David Memeger said, “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.”

    He continued, “For the government to prosecute a criminal case, it must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person charged acted with criminal intent. We have not found evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent. I understand that the civil litigation continues. I chose to make this announcement before the beginning of the school year to close at least one part of this matter.”

    The Associated Press reports:

    The FBI investigated the wealthy district for possible wiretap violations after a student’s civil lawsuit brought the issue to the public’s attention. Lower Merion High School student Blake Robbins alleged the district took photographs of him in his bedroom as he slept.

    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.

    “We are very pleased with today’s decision by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which supports the findings of our internal investigation,” Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley said. “This is all good news for the students and staff of Lower Merion School District as we prepare for the start of a new school year.”

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