Oh Brother, Will School Spy Case Change Fed Law?

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on March 30, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

They say all they wanted to do was track down missing or stolen laptops. And possibly, make student Blake Robbins kick that vicious Mike & Ike habit. However, the much reported on (and much blogged about) Lower Merion School District spy case has had numerous unforeseen consequences, (lawsuit, FBI probe) and here is one more. Ars Technica reports on March 29, that the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee of Crime and Drugs hauled its members from the comfort of Capital Hill to Philadelphia for a hearing on possible changes to the Federal Wiretap Act, precipitated by this case.

According to the report, the Senate Committee was motivated to look into a change in the law due to the fact that the school district's alleged use of the webcams to surveil their students, (plaintiff Blake Robbins being but one example) was not an infraction of the Act as currently written. Testimony given by Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kevin Bankston put it like this: had the school district used a microphone to eavesdrop on students or intercepted student video chat, they would be guilty of violating the Act. However, silent video surveillance does not violate the act as currently written. Bankston is urging a change, because as made clear by the ongoing Lower Merion case, "surreptitious video surveillance has become a pervasive threat."

Ars Technica reports an opposing point of view was given to the committee by Former Justice Department prosecutor Marc Zwillinger. He cautioned that in certain situations, such as with the use of nanny cams, or closed circuit television, "We are comforted by the notion that video surveillance helps keep our children safe." Zwillinger voiced concern that a change in the Federal Wiretap Act might "create more problems than it would solve."

Also speaking, on a subject not helpful to any future defense the school district might expect to make, was John Livingston. Livingston is CEO of Absolute Software, the company who owns the LANRev software allegedly used by Lower Merion to spy on its students. According to Livingston, his company believes their "managed recovery" process was a superior model for recovering lost and stolen laptops compared to the the use of webcam surveillance that the school supposedly employed. Livingston testified that after a computer was reported stolen, the company's investigative team tracks it down. Their score? 100 recoveries a week, or 13,500 since 1994. Livingston also said after his company purchased the LANRev software, it provided a fix to current customers that could disable the remote webcam and potentially prevent the very issue that brought the Lower Merion School District to court and the Senate Committee to Pennsylvania.

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