Last week, I noted the strange story of a lawsuit filed by parents who allege that their son was spied on by school officials who used security software capable of remotely activating the webcams in laptops distributed to students. A bit more information on that case has since come out. The school district has issued a statement which doesn’t get into the details of the case, but avers that the remote camera capability has only ever been used in an effort to locate laptops believed to have been lost or stolen. (That apparently includes a temporary “loaner computer that, against regulations, might be taken off campus.”) They do, however, acknowledge that they erred in failing to notify parents about this capability. The lawyer for the student plaintiff is now telling reporters that school officials called his client in to the vice principal’s office when they mistook his Mike and Ike candies for illegal drugs.
Perhaps most intriguingly, a security blogger has done some probing into the technical capabilities of the surveillance software used by the school district. The blogger also rounds up comments from self-identified students of the high school, many of whom claim that they noticed the webcam light on their school-issued laptops flickering on and off—behavior they were told was a “glitch”—which may provide some reason to question the school’s assertion that this capability was only activated in a handful of cases to locate lost laptops. The FBI, meanwhile, has reportedly opened an investigation to see whether any federal wiretap laws may have been violated.
It’s this last item I want to call attention to. The complaint against the school district states a number of causes of action. The most obvious one—which sounds to me like a slam dunk—is a Fourth Amendment claim. But there are also a handful of claims under federal wiretapping statutes, specifically the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Stored Communications Act. These are more dubious, and rest on the premise that the webcam image was an “electronic communication” that school officials “intercepted” (as those terms are used in the statute), or alternatively that the activation of the security software involved “unauthorized” access by the school to its own laptop. The trouble is that courts considering similar claims in the past have held that federal electronic surveillance law does not cover silent video surveillance—or rather, the criminal wiretap statutes don’t.
That leads to a strange asymmetry in a couple of different ways. First, intelligence surveillance covered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act does include silent video monitoring. Second, it seems to provide less protection for a type of monitoring that is arguably still more intrusive. If officials had turned on the laptop’s microphone, that would fall under ECPA’s prohibition on intercepts of “oral communications.” And if the student had been engaged in a video chat using software like Skype, that would clearly constitute an “electronic communication,” even if the audio were not intercepted. But at least in the cases I’m familiar with, the courts have declined to apply that label to surreptitiously recorded silent video—which one might think would be the most invasive of all, given that the target is completely unaware of being observed by anybody.
One final note: The coverage I’m seeing is talking about this as though it involves one school doing something highly unusual. It’s not remotely clear to me that this is the case. We know that at least one other school district employs similar monitoring software, and a growing number of districts are experimenting with issuing laptops to students. I’d like to see reporters start calling around and find out just how many schools are supplying kids with potential telescreens.