Specter promises new wiretapping rules after school webcam flap

The legal battle over one Pennsylvania school's alleged use of a remote-activated webcam to spy on a student has prompted Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) to call for sweeping changes to federal wiretapping laws.

During a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee -- at which Specter, who convened the discussion in Philadelphia, was the only member present -- the Pennsylvania senator stressed new legislation was necessary to keep pace with changes in and challenges with technology.

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Specter's calls for new federal wiretapping rules arrive about a month after a student at Harriton High School learned administrators had activated a webcam installed on his school-issued laptop without his knowledge or permission.

School officials initially defended both their decision and their technology, stressing the cameras were merely a mechanism to track down stolen or abused laptops. Still, countless parents have since excoriated the school district for what they allege is a gross invasion of students' privacy.

Consequently, the family of the student who was allegedly and unknowingly monitored is now suing the school district for damages.

However, Specter said at Monday's hearing that current federal wiretapping rules only apply to telephone lines and cell phones. The rules prevent one party from listening to another without his or her consent, he noted.

Still not covered, however, are video clips and images, the senator said. That means the Lower Merion School District administrators who activated a student's camera remotely are not guilty of violating federal wiretapping rules, provided they did not record any sound while the camera was turned on, Specter explained at the hearing.

"A picture can be just as invasive on privacy as a statement," the senator told hearing participants, though he did not say when he would introduce his revisions to wiretapping rules.

"The incident raises a question as to whether the law has kept up with technology," Specter added.