Webcam Spying: How Far Does the Right to Privacy Extend?

Lora Bentley
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Check out highlights from Lora's poll of industry experts on the topic of online security.

Remember the webcam spying lawsuits that came up in Pennsylvania and Wyoming over the last couple years?


In the former, a high school senior and his parents sued the school district and technology administrators for violating their privacy after IT staff remotely activated the laptop's webcam to capture video of the student and other members of his family in their home - sometimes in compromising situations. The case eventually settled out of court. The school district also agreed to better inform the students and families who received the laptops that the webcams could be remotely activated in the event they were lost or stolen.


In the latter, a couple sued the company from which they had rented a laptop after they were accused of defaulting on the rental agreement but continuing to use the laptop. A store representative showed the couple webcam pictures taken in their home after they had allegedly stopped paying rent. The couple was unaware that the webcam could be remotely activated in the event the laptop was stolen or damaged, and they had not consented to its use.

Last month, a similar circumstance arose, but it may raise entirely new questions about privacy. BBC News reports California resident Joshua Kaufman made use of software that allowed him to track his laptop's location and take pictures and screenshots remotely to help police recover the laptop after it had been stolen.


The software is called Hidden. According to the company website:

When you activate tracking, Hidden will locate your stolen computer anywhere on the planet, collect photos of the thief and screen shots of the computer in use. (We also collect lots of nerdy network information, but we won't bore you with the details!)

The company will also help customers work with police to get the computer back.


It sounds great, and according to testimonials on the website, it works like a charm. This is exactly what the school district and the rental store installed similar software on their computers to help with, after all. But upon seeing media coverage of the story - not to mention the Tumblr blog where Kaufman posted pictures of the suspect - a coworker asked a question that made me stop and think: Did the guy using the computer have any right to expect privacy when using the laptop? True, it was stolen. But he was charged with possessing stolen property, not with the actual theft. So did he know it was stolen? Could he somehow turn around and sue Hidden for violating his privacy?


I hope not. Tracking stolen property is exactly what the software was designed to do, and that's what it did here. In the other cases, the software was used for other purposes. I would think that would be enough of a distinguishing factor to prevent yet another webcam spying suit.

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