Previously on Vitamin D Blog, I mentioned the Pennsylvania school that allegedly turned on webcams of laptops given to students, recording them in their homes without their knowledge. The school claimed that the cameras only were activated 42 times to recover lost laptops. Later it turned out that “activated” meant ongoing surveillance. In all, 56,000 images, as well as websites visited and chat threads, were captured. The suit alleges email from a staffer saying the surveillance was like “a little…soap opera,” and a response from the administrator of the program saying, “I know, I love it.” (Security technology advocates to administrator: YOU’RE NOT HELPING.)
Afterward, the developer of the technology, Absolute Software, announced they were removing the feature. The company claimed “Theft Track” was a legacy feature of a product meant for “lifecycle management.” The company blog stated, “[W]ebcam pictures are not a useful tool in tracking down the location of a stolen computer.” (Apparently not, if you need 56,000.)
Distancing themselves from this feature sounds credible, however, since the company has another product that is designed for theft recovery. You have to file a police report first; then Absolute locates the machine using its IP address (no pictures), and informs the local police directly. This seems like a much smarter approach. As their Marketing VP said to Computerworld, “Even if you are able to locate the laptop on your own, what do you do then?”
Subsequently, in response to this event Senator Arlen Specter introduced the Surreptitious Video Surveillance Act of 2010. This bill would make it illegal to video anyone secretly in a residence who has “a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Will this make nanny-cam recording illegal? Hidden ones might be illegal. The bill’s press release outlines important exceptions, however, for residential surveillance with consent, cameras in the workplace, undercover operations and “residential security systems which use video cameras.”
I suppose highlighting abuses of security technology isn’t the best way to increase our sales, but it’s important to acknowledge privacy implications and educate people about them. For more information on digital privacy rights, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation.