Mar 292010
 March 29, 2010  Posted by  Featured News, Laws, Surveillance, U.S.

Nate Anderson reports:

When Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion school district installed remote control anti-theft software on student laptops, it had no intention of dragging Congress into a national debate about wiretapping laws and webcams—but that’s exactly what it got (in addition to some unwanted FBI attention and a major lawsuit). The key question: should the school’s alleged actions be made illegal under US wiretap law?

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee of Crime and Drugs schlepped out of DC today and wound up in Philadelphia’s US District Court, Courtroom 3B, to hold a field hearing on “video laptop surveillance.” The trigger issue was Lower Merion, which stands accused of using the anti-theft software to remotely peep on students using their own webcams, even outside of school hours.

The existing Wiretap Act already bans oral, wire, and electronic communications gathered without consent (unless a court orders it). “Oral” communication is clear enough, but “wired” communications also need to have an aural component, according to the law. And “electronic” communications only include data such as e-mails.

The upshot is that the Wiretap Act does not currently regulate silent video communication.


EFF lawyer Kevin Bankston blasted the current law in his testimony, telling the subcommittee this morning, “It makes no sense that if the Lower Merion School District’s administrators had eavesdropped on students’ conversations at home using the laptop’s microphone, or had intercepted a student’s private video chats, they would clearly be guilty of a felony violation of Title III, but surreptitious video surveillance is not regulated by the statute at all.”

Bankston called for an immediate change in the law, saying that webcams were “awesomely useful” but that “surreptitious video surveillance has become a pervasive threat.”

Read more on Ars Technica.

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