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PA school district avoids charges over webcam spy scandal

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Philadelphia school administrators involved in a webcam spying episode will escape criminal prosecution, federal authorities have decided.

A high school in the Lower Merion School District of suburban Philadelphia used laptop cameras outfitted with LanRev theft tracking software to monitor students. The unorthodox use of the technology to covertly take pictures of high school students emerged after student Blake Robbins was accused of "improper conduct" based on images captured using the technology at the teenager's home last autumn.

Robbins, 15, was accused of "pill popping", a charge strongly disputed by the family who said their son was simply eating sweets while surfing. The incident provoked an invasion of privacy lawsuit and FBI inquiry.

School administrators at first said the LanRev tracking camera function was only used a small number of times after a laptop was reported either lost or stolen. It later emerged that 58,000 pictures of students and their friends and family were taken by the school district, which issued 2,300 MacBooks to students.

An independent report by a computer forensics expert and former prosecutor found no proof of a deliberate campaign to spy on students or evidence that the captured images had been used inappropriately. IT administrators were nonetheless criticised for "overzealous" use of the technology, while administrators were lambasted for failing to formulate and apply security policies.

Federal prosecutors this week decided not to pursue criminal charges in the case after concluding there was no criminal intent in the alleged surveillance.

"I have concluded that bringing criminal charges is not warranted in this matter," Zane David Memeger, US attorney for the Easter District of Pennsylvania said in a statement, Wired reports.

"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."

The civil lawsuit - which has a much lower burden of proof - is unaffected by the decision not to bring charges against the school administrators involved in the episode. Mark Haltzman, a lawyer suing the district, told Wired that the prosecutor's ruling in the case highlighted the need for tougher privacy-protecting legislation. ®

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