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    More on the Pennsylvania Webcam Case: What’s the Fourth Amendment Argument?

    Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy and Julian Sanchez and Jim Harper (of Cato and the Tech Liberation Front) take a look at the Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure questions behind the Pennsylvania Webcam case. Recap: In a class-action lawsuit — Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (pdf) — in Pennsylvania, the Robbins family alleged that the Lower Merion School District misused Webcam-enabled laptops it issued to students in order to remotely peep into the students’ homes, take photographs and violate their privacy. The school district has denied violating anyone’s privacy, claiming the Webcams were only turned on in case of lost or stolen computers. The FBI and local officials are investigating. The Stryde Hax blog has an excellent breakdown of the technology that the school district used to remotely control Webcams in 2,300 laptops it issued to students.

    Kerr’s argument: “The schools violated the Fourth Amendment rights of students when they actually turned the cameras on when the computers were at home. On the other hand, the schools did not violate the federal statutory surveillance laws.” Read his post for details concerning the case as related to the federal and state wiretap acts, the Stored Communications Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Fourth Amendment.

    Then, head over to the Tech Liberation Front, where Sanchez and Harper are also debating the Fourth Amendment issues in this case.

    Harper believes: “If the laptop is AWOL from school—presumptively stolen—I don’t see that it would be unreasonable to use the security system to discover its location, and the camera to capture images of who is using it. If there are statutes that would prevent that, I think a court would find a way to avoid applying them, be it on the theory that the putative thief assumed the risk of being surveilled, unclean hands, or some other basis.”

    Sanchez’s response: “The problem is that the relevant case law is full of some pretty strong statements to the effect that any such search is unreasonable without a warrant, even when there’s much less intimate disclosure than a webcam makes possible.  In a context where these laptops are routinely taken home by minor students—even if this particular one should not have been—and where there’s a registration of the IP address in advance of the camera activation, it seems fair to expect the school to understand that activation of the camera carries significant risk of capturing images from the home.”

    The discussion continues in the comments section, where Kerr pops up to put in his thoughts.

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