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School Spies Had No 'Criminal Intent,' Say Feds

By Katherine Noyes
Aug 18, 2010 12:10 PM PT

Roughly six months after it launched an investigation into the allegations at the heart of the Blake Robbins v. the Lower Merion School District school spying case, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced on Tuesday that no charges will be filed.

School Spies Had No 'Criminal Intent,' Say Feds

"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," said United States Attorney Zane David Memeger.

There was a lack of evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt" that school officials acted with criminal intent, he said -- something that's required in order for the government to prosecute a criminal case.

"I understand that the civil litigation continues," Memeger continued. "I chose to make this announcement before the beginning of the school year to close at least one part of this matter."

Invasion of Privacy

The suit -- which was filed in February in U.S. District Court by Michael Robbins and Holly Robbins on behalf of their son, Blake Robbins -- alleges that the Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa., invaded students' privacy and stole private information, violating numerous laws.

The family seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as well as class action status for the suit, which would allow other students to take part as well.

Although the civil suit is still under way, the Lower Merion School District was understandably relieved by Tuesday's decision.

'This Is All Good News'

"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 the district, said on Tuesday. "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."

New laptop policies just approved by the school board stipulate that the school district can access a student's computer only with the explicit written authority from students and their parents or guardians.

In the case of stolen laptops, theft-tracking software will be activated only if the student and his or her parent or guardian file a police report and provide signed forms to the principal. Theft-tracking software would never have the capability of capturing screen shots, audio, video or on-screen text, according to the district.

'It Is Stunning'

Nevertheless, "in the case of alleged behavior that's this egregious, it really is kind of stunning that there wouldn't be prosecution," Jonathan Handel, an attorney at TroyGould, told TechNewsWorld.

It's true that there needs to be criminal intent for someone to be convicted of a crime, "but that's presumed in many cases by the nature of the behavior," Handel explained.

For example, "if someone decides to fire a gun in the air just for the fun of it, and if their bullet lands on someone's head, they don't take a pass," he noted.

'You Really Have to Wonder'

The difficulty may be that "our laws in this country about privacy are not great," Handel suggested.

On the other hand, he continued, "if we've made it illegal for somebody to sign on to a computer system or network that they don't have permission to be on, you have to ask yourself, why should that be illegal but the egregious alleged behavior of the district not be criminalized?

"It's a case that so shocks the conscience that you really have to wonder why there wouldn't be prosecution," said Handel.

Civil Action Continues

Of course, the FBI's decision "in no way absolves the parties of civil liability, particularly since they have admitted to 'serious mistakes' and 'misguided actions,'" Raymond Van Dyke, a technology lawyer in Washington, D.C., told TechNewsWorld.

"As pointed out in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on this 'WebcamGate' scandal, existing laws of wiretap and video surveillance are inadequate to address these particular actions," he noted. "Congress may step in to address the serious issues raised in this case, particularly with the Orwellian specter of 1984 pervading it.

"Even though Americans accept less privacy rights than Europeans, school officials covertly snooping into a private home on students, parents, siblings and any third parties goes beyond too far," he added.

'Very Unfortunate'

In the meantime, Tuesday's decision could have a "whipsaw effect" visible in the attitudes of other school districts around the country, Handel opined.

Most likely, when the original story came to light, "you'd expect a number of districts around the country would begin passing policies to prohibit this kind of behavior," Handel explained. "Now, with this decision, there may be some districts that will think it's OK" after all.

"The point of criminal law and in some ways civil law is to deter future behavior by other people," Handel pointed out. "If the wrong signal is being sent, which may well be the case here, that's very unfortunate."

'A Peek into the Thorny Issues to Come'

If anything is clear moving forward, it's that the case won't be the last of its kind, Van Dyke predicted.

"With the accelerating capability of technology," he noted, "these privacy issues are just a peek into the thorny issues to come."


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