Technology » Personal Tech

Feds: No charges in Pa. school laptop-spying case

by Maryclaire Dale
Wednesday Aug 18, 2010
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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 Tuesday they could not prove any criminal wrongdoing by Lower Merion School District employees.

"We have not found evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent," U.S. Attorney Zane D. Memeger said in a statement.

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.

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."

The federal prosecutor’s announcement follows a school board decision Monday 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.

Robbins’ lawsuit is pending, and a second student has joined him in suing the district over the alleged electronic spying.

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 also captured video chats and instant messages that Robbins exchanged with friends, according to his lawyer, Mark Haltzman.

Robbins 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, his lawyer has said.

About a dozen school officials could request an activation, but only two people on the technology staff could turn the program on, the district has said. Those technology staffers, coordinator Carol Cafiero and technician Michael Perbix, were placed on paid leave after Robbins filed suit.

Cafiero’s lawyer said she did nothing wrong and wants to return to her $105,000-a-year job. District spokesman Doug Young said he could not comment on the personnel matter.

"I would hope they take her back soon," lawyer Charles Mandracchia said Tuesday. "She’s one of the few people that said we needed to establish a policy. And it kind of fell on deaf ears."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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