Sunday, February 28, 2010

Creepiest Privacy Violation of 2009?

Imagine your child's school offered him or her a free laptop to do homework. That'd be pretty cool, right? Now, imagine that the school administrators used a built in web cam to surreptitiously take pictures of your children. According to the complaint filed in Robins v. Lower Merion School District, that's exactly what happened in one Pennsylvania school district (actually, it's even creepier than that, if the allegations set forth here are true). The complaint alleges violations of (among other things) the electronic communications privacy act, the stored communications act, the computer fraud and abuse act, and the fourth amendment (since the school administrators were acting on behalf of the state when they were allegedly violating the student's privacy rights).

Of course, the school officials are denying any wrongdoing, and claim they have been unfairly portrayed (see here). That could be true. After all, there's a reason we have trials, and it makes sense not to rush to judgment until after both sides have been able to have their proverbial day in court. However, while I don't want to rush to judgment, I can make a few comments at least on the legal theories in the case. First, while I understand the plaintiff's argument, that taking surreptitious web cam pictures violated the stored communications act and electronic communications privacy acts, I still don't know how good a fit those acts are for this particular (alleged) crime. After all, while the hypothetical communications (i.e., web cam images) were illicit, they weren't intercepted or accessed by anyone other than their intended recipients. Instead, I think the computer fraud and abuse act arguments seem a bit more natural. For the computer fraud and abuse act, I can't imagine how taking surreptitious pictures over a web cam doesn't exceed unauthorized access to a protected computer. I think the fourth amendment claim is also a good fit. While students have a lessened right to privacy in the school, there must still be a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity before school authorities can perform a search (a more detailed, and better, explanation of the relevant precedent can be found here). Further, the alleged monitoring wasn't limited to school hours, but also caught students while they were at home and, according to the complaint, "in various stages of dress or undress."

Again, all of the allegations in the complaint are just that - allegations. Until the defendants have a chance to answer, and the case is actually tried, they are presumed innocent (or, in this case, not liable). However, at least from the face of the complaint, it appears as though there could have been some serious privacy violations (potentially supporting claims under at least the fourth amendments and the computer fraud and abuse act).

(via Bruce Schneier)


electronic signatures said...

More than one year has past since you posted this.Can you give some links for updates on this case.Is the case solved now.what were the proceedings in this case where a school and its students were involved

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