Secret Webcam Surveillance Of Pa. Students Leads To Call For Stronger Privacy Law

Allegations that school officials in Pennsylvania secretly watched students at home via webcams installed on school-issued laptop computers proves that Congress must update federal eavesdropping laws to cover unauthorized video surveillance, an attorney representing an Internet freedom organization told senators.

Kevin Bankston delivered his message to members of a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee in the same Philadelphia courthouse where the parents of high school student Blake Robbins filed a class action lawsuit alleging that school administrators secretly used Internet-enabled cameras installed on student laptops to spy on the students within their own homes.

Federal surveilliance protection hasn’t been updated since the the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, otherwise known simply as the Wiretap Act, says Bankston, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That law currently only regulates electronic eavesdropping on oral conversations and the interception of voice and electronic communications, he adds.

“There is no reason why Congress should not amend that law to also provide Americans with equally strong privacy protections against surreptitious video surveillance,” Bankston says.

Blake Robbins first learned of the alleged laptop spying in November when an assistant principal stated her belief that Blake was engaged in improper behavior in his home, citing as evidence a photograph from Blake’s laptop, Bankston told lawmakers at a Senate field hearing on Monday.

The hearing was held by the Senate Judiciary Committee crime and drugs subcommittee, which is chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Democrat.

According to more recent interviews with Blake and his attorney, school officials suspected that Blake was involved in illicit drugs because he was allegedly photographed holding pill-shaped objects; the Robbins family maintains those pills were simply Mike-N-Ike candies, a favorite of Blake Robbins, Bankston says.

After the lawsuit was filed, the local school superintendent issued a series of letters to district parents in which he admitted that school administrators did indeed have the capability, through the theft tracking features of security software installed on students’ laptops, to remotely take pictures using the laptops’ web cams. Superintendent Christopher McGinley further claimed that the feature was only ever activated when a laptop was reported lost or stolen, although notably, the Robbins allege that Blake’s computer was never reported lost or stolen, Bankston says.

Finally, McGinley admitted that no formal notice of the functionality or use of the remote picture-taking feature was ever given to students or the families, Bankston adds.

“Whether or not all of these frightening claims are true, the controversy over the school district’s previously secret capability to surreptitiously photograph students in their homes—a controversy that some students have dubbed ‘Webcamgate’ —has highlighted the significant privacy risk posed by web cams,” Bankston says.

Bankston acknowledges that webcams represent a useful technology for most who use them, although they do pose the potential for unwanted snooping from stalkers, criminals, employers and others.

“Yet, American citizens and consumers lack the most basic protections against this kind of spying. In particular, manufacturers have failed to give us basic technical protections, such as lens caps and hard-wired on/off power switches for the cameras, so we can all be sure that when we’ve turned off our web cam, no one else will turn it on,” he says. “In the meantime, we recommend that laptop owners do what many of the students in Lower Merion are doing—cover your camera lens with a piece of tape or a post-it note.”

It “makes no sense” that Congress, while strictly regulating electronic eavesdropping on people who have a reasonable expectation of privacy that they won’t be recorded, would leave the regulation of equally invasive video surveillance up to states to decide, Bankston says.

Just 13 states had passed statutes expressly prohibiting the unauthorized installation or use of cameras in private places, and several of those statutes regulate cameras only in certain limited circumstances, such as in locker rooms or restrooms, or where the purpose is to view someone that is partially or fully nude, Bankston says, citing 2003 data. One federal law, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004, similarly restricts only secret videotaping of persons in a state of undress, and “only applies in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States” rather than applying generally, he adds.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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