Spying on Students Through Their Computers

Apparently, according to Boing Boing, a high school in Pennsylvania supplied students with laptop computers … with the unusual and unannounced feature that the school could remotely turn on the webcams installed in the computers and watch the students away from the school, such as at home, without the students knowing about it.

A lot of people find this very offensive – but what is the offence, exactly, as a matter of law?

Is it the unauthorized use of the computer? It’s the school’s computer. Does that make a difference? Does it make a difference if the terms of use that the students had to sign before getting the computer (normally no doubt without reading them) said that the school could check on the student’s behaviour, without saying how?

There is a class action going on, or seeking permission to be launched, in Pennsylvania, in part at least under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which deals with unauthorized access to computers. Here the computers are having unauthorized access to the students (except that the issue is the school authorities’ access….). Would a court have any trouble finding that images captured by the webcam were data, access to which was unauthorized, even by the owner of the computer?

Is there a privacy offence in the provinces that do not have private-sector privacy laws? Assume that the school is not making commercial use of the images of the students, so PIPEDA would not apply.

What other ground of civil liability do you see?

Is there another criminal offence going on? Would it matter if any of the images seen (and capable of storage, whether or not routinely stored) could have some sexual content, if only seeing someone undressing? Would that create a child pornography offence?

Is it wiretapping (or illegal interception of communications)?


  1. I would love to lurk on a serious discussion about this topic. I think it is huge and badly needed to be debated in Canada. It is bigger than technology or students laptops.

    Wiretapping was mentioned. From my understanding, according to the wiretap laws you can not record or intercept a conversation between two people unless you are one of the individuals in the conversation or you have a warrant. Yet as someone who works on networks, I have easily gathered VoIP packets which I can replay and listen to the conversation. This procedure is no different than gathering and reviewing packets containing peoples web browsing habits.

    Laws need to be debated and updated independent of technology. What rights do I have as a private citizen with expectations of privacy? What rights do I have as a employee of a company with respect to privacy? In my opinion, technology is not the problem, just the catalyst.

  2. See Professor Eugene Volokh’s analysis of the laws potentially infringed: Lawsuit: Pennsylvania School’s Laptops Used to Spy on Students