U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) said this morning that the use of Lower Merion school-issued laptops' cameras for surveillance has inspired him to write proposed legislation that would extend similar privacy restrictions for sound recordings under federal wiretap law to pictures and video captured by cameras.
"A picture can be just as invasive on privacy as a statement," Specter said after conducting a Senate subcommittee hearing on technology and privacy in the James A. Byrne Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia.
Specter, who was the only senator at the hearing of the crime and justice subcommittee of the Senate's judiciary committee, quizzed a panel of law and technology experts on the implications of Lower Merion School District's remote surveillance of student laptops via Web cam. The school district is fighting a lawsuit filed by the family of Harriton High School student Blake Robbins over the Web cams' usage, which Specter and others alluded to repeatedly in the hearing.
"The incident raises a question as to whether the law has kept up with technology," Specter said.
The experts largely agreed, noting in their testimony that the vast expansions of electronic communications and the number of video cameras - particularly on cell phones - since privacy laws were written.
Federal wiretap law restricts how telephone and in-person conversations can be recorded when the speaker can reasonably expect privacy, but no such law governs visual images. Thus the remote use of a laptop camera to take a picture of a school-issued computer's user at home, for example, would not appear to break a federal law as long as no sound recording was made as well, Specter said.
"It is clear that the gap needs to be closed," said law professor Fred H. Cate of Indiana University. "It is less clear what exactly needs to be done."
He and others at the hearing said a law would have to take into account legitimate uses of cameras, such as building security and monitoring of public spaces.
At Specter's invitation, Lower Merion parent Bob Wegbreit, a Narberth borough councilman, joined the panel mid-hearing and endorsed the idea of a new law for photographic privacy rights. "Then we would all know where everything stands," Wegbreit said.
No one from the school district testified.
Specter did not say when he would be ready to introduce such legislation.