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School laptop spy case prompts Wiretap Act rethink

Nate Anderson
Ars Technica [1]
March 30, 2010

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 [2]). 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 [3] 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 [4].

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. Lower Merion’s actions are not alleged to include the use of a laptop microphone and therefore would not be covered by the Wiretap Act. In an age of webcams, wireless CCTV cameras, and cell phones that can take video, the law is badly out of date. Congress and the states have both taken some very limited steps to rein in abuses, but nearly all focus only on voyeurism.

Full article here [1]