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School webcam spying prompts call for new laws

Privacy laws haven't kept up with changes in technology, says Sen. Arlen Specter.
Privacy laws haven't kept up with changes in technology, says Sen. Arlen Specter.

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., is pushing for new federal laws on electronic privacy as a school district in his home state struggles with a lawsuit over attempts to locate missing laptops by turning on webcams remotely—something that could have enabled it to record students at home.

Specter said at a field hearing of a Senate subcommittee March 29 that he believes existing wiretap and video-voyeurism statutes do not adequately address concerns in an era marked by the widespread use of cell-phone, laptop, and surveillance cameras.

“My family and I recognize that in today’s society, almost every place we go outside of our home we are photographed and recorded by traffic cameras, ATM cameras, and store surveillance cameras,” Blake Robbins, a student at Harriton High School who sued the Lower Merion School District last month, wrote in a statement read into the record at the hearing of the crime and justice subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“This makes it all the more important that we vigilantly safeguard our homes, the only refuge we have from this eyes-everywhere onslaught,” he wrote.

Robbins accuses the Lower Merion School District of spying by secretly activating webcams on school-issued laptops. District officials admit they did so but said they were trying only to locate 42 lost or stolen computers.

Neither Robbins nor his parents attended the session, which did not specifically focus on the Lower Merion case—the subject of ongoing county and FBI investigations. Instead, five experts debated how best to strike a balance between privacy and security concerns.

Lawyer Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that wiretap laws, which now cover audio recordings, should be broadened to include videotaped surveillance. But others disagreed, arguing that wiretap charges should not apply, lest they entangle innocent people using software tracking programs to try to find their own stolen phones or laptops.

“If it does fall under [the Wiretap Act] in the new legislation, we hope there will be an exception for stolen devices,” said John Livingston, chairman of Absolute Software Corp., the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company that acquired the LANrev TheftTrack software program deployed by Lower Merion. (Absolute Software no longer promotes the use of LANrev for anti-theft purposes; see “Experts: Schools can track laptops less intrusively.”)

The panel debated whether any new law should focus on the intent of the person using the camera; whether the subject’s location affords them an expectation of privacy, such as a home or locker room; or the full context of the situation.

Only one person from the Lower Merion district testified: a parent opposed to the Robbins family’s lawsuit, who urged a middle ground between security and privacy concerns.

Bob Wegbreit said a warning might suffice to let families know the district might activate webcams without a student’s knowledge. Students then could choose to keep the computers in other parts of the house, instead of their bedrooms, said Wegbreit, whose group fears the lawsuit will damage the upscale district’s finances and reputation.

Federal legislation might help clarify what school districts, employers, or others can and cannot do, he said.

“There’s no question that I believe the federal government should be legislating in this area,” said Fred H. Cate, an Indiana University law school professor who specializes in cyber security issues. “We’ve seen a proliferation of video cameras in every aspect of our lives.”

Specter, the only senator in attendance at the March 29 field hearing, agreed to lead the effort, noting that at least one federal judge voiced concerns a quarter century ago that privacy laws were not keeping up with emerging technology.

“My sense is my colleagues will be responsive,” Specter said. “If there is a gap, it ought to be closed … after 25 years.”


Sen. Arlen Specter

Lower Merion School District

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Absolute Software

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Securing Student Laptops for Safe Learning resource center. Technology is an essential part of a 21st-century education for both teachers and students, and district 1-to-1 computing initiatives and laptop lending programs are on the rise. Most of the focus falls on how these mobile computers and handheld devices will help enhance teaching and learning. However, how a district manages its technology can have a significant impact on its budget. Go to:

Securing Student Laptops for Safe Learning

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