School Laptop Spying Allegations Raise Privacy Questions

Alleged spying from behind the lens of a school-issued laptop with a webcam.

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A high school student in suburban Philadelphia is suing his school district for allegedly spying on him through the webcam of a school-issued laptop. As NPR's Elizabeth Fiedler reports on All Things Considered Wednesday, the allegations have triggered an FBI investigation.

That investigation is likely to reveal whether such practices are widespread in schools and corporations — and whether they're likely to spread — according to Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute.

Even if the spying happened — which Lower Merion School District officials dispute — it may not have been illegal. Privacy laws are generally related to oral communication only, says Maltby, a former director of employment rights with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"If there was a microphone connected to that webcam, they could be in a lot of trouble," he says. "If not, they could get off scot-free."

Witold J. Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says regardless of the applicability of wiretapping statutes, there's still a constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

"There's no confusion about whether the 4th Amendment applies here," he says. "We haven't had any cases where law enforcement was stupid enough to put a camera into a home without a warrant."

Regardless of the legal outcome, Walczak predicts that other districts will be discouraged from remotely operating surveillance cameras, "given the firestorm that hit Lower Merion."

There's no way of telling whether schools or companies are using webcams to monitor their employees. The technology is certainly available. And it's clear that many corporations use computers to keep track of employee activity — by reading their e-mails, for instance, or tracking which Web sites they visit.

"The fact that this has come to light is really important, because it shows there can be abuse," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer group based in San Diego.

The Lower Merion district has admitted installing software that gave officials the ability to activate student webcams at any time, to track stolen or lost laptops, but officials there have stopped the practice, Fiedler reports.

Regardless of the legal outcome and how it may affect official policy, Maltby warns that this type of spying can and likely will be done on an unauthorized basis by technology officers.

"No matter how this turns out," Maltby says, "if my daughters get a laptop from school and it has a webcam, it's not going in their bedroom."

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