Feds: No crime spying on kids via webcams

This article was originally published on Salon on August 18, 2010.

District loaned laptops to students, then used spyware to take pictures of them. Prosecutors: No “criminal intent”

Federal prosecutors are showing uncommon sympathy for some Pennsylvania school officials who spied on students via webcams in their school-owned laptop computers: They’ve decided not to prosecute.

The reason? “For the government to prosecute a criminal case, it must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person charged acted with criminal intent,” the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a statement. “We have not found evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent.”

Let’s leave aside the fact that people are charged all the time for criminal offenses despite having no idea they’re committing crimes. And since when did ignorance of the law confer immunity?

Let’s focus instead on the fundamental creepiness in what happened at the Lower Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia. A lot of the facts and fuller context in this privacy debacle remain murky. Let’s hope that the discovery process in the several civil suits results in a more complete disclosure, but we do know this:

The district loaned laptop computers to students and then, under a program the district said was aimed at recovering lost or stolen machines, used spyware to capture tens of thousands of images of kids. Some of those images, it emerged in civil suits filed against the officials, were taken in students’ homes — and some of those in their bedrooms. Oh, just a terrible mistake, said the district.

Some 38,000 images from six computers alone, not to mention video chats and IMs in at least one case? If this is an oversight, a mere mistake, yike. But if so, the people who were that sloppy shouldn’t be trusted to teach elementary arithmetic or anything else.

There’s apparently no state law against this kind of thing. That’s outrageous by itself. And while the feds have concluded that they can’t pursue criminal charges, no one should even consider letting the school district off the hook in any moral way for its reprehensible behavior.

The case also reminds us that civil lawsuits play a vital role in our society. Yes, some plaintiffs’ lawyers launch meritless lawsuits and cause wide harm. But sometimes, as in this case, they are the last line of defense when powerful institutions beat up on individuals. We forget that at our peril.