Policy Brief

School Webcam Flap Spurs Look at Wiretap Laws

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Broadening wiretap laws to include videotaped surveillance could either safeguard privacy or thwart efforts to recover stolen property, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., was told at a recent hearing in Philadelphia, not far from a school that sparked a lawsuit for trying to find missing laptops by activating their webcams.

Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion school district has been sued by a high school student who accuses the district of spying by secretly activating webcams on the school-issued laptops. Officials admit they did so but said they were only trying to locate 42 lost or stolen laptop computers. The accusations are the subject of ongoing county and FBI investigations.

Existing wiretap and video-voyeurism statutes do not adequately address privacy and other concerns in an era marked by the widespread use of cellphone, laptop, and surveillance cameras, Sen. Specter had said prior to last week’s hearing. He later said that testimony at the hearing convinced him of that.

The testimony included a written statement from Blake Robbins, the Harriton High School student who sued the Lower Merion district.

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

Only one person from the Lower Merion district—a parent opposed to the Robbins family’s lawsuit—testified at the hearing, which heard mainly from experts debating the right balance between privacy and security concerns.

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

Vol. 29, Issue 28, Page 24

Published in Print: April 7, 2010, as Webcams Posing Policy Conundrum
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