March 30, 2010 | By Richard Esguerra

EFF Testifies to Congress on Need for New Privacy Protections Against Hidden Video Surveillance

Yesterday, EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston testified before Congress, urging that the federal wiretapping law be updated to protect Americans against secret video surveillance just as it protects against covert electronic eavesdropping.

The Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee was prompted to hold the hearing, titled "Video Laptop Surveillance: Does Title III Need to Be Updated?", in response to reports that school administrators in Pennsylvania secretly spied on students in their homes by remotely activating the webcams on school-issued laptops. "Title III" refers the federal privacy statute that regulates electronic eavesdropping and the wiretapping of telephone and Internet communications. Unfortunately, as Bankston and other witnesses explained at the hearing, Title III does not regulate video surveillance, even though it can be just as invasive as eavesdropping.

In his testimony, Bankston argued to Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter (D-PA) that the need to fill this glaring gap in the law has taken on new urgency with the rapid proliferation of web cams: "Any camera controlled by software on a computer that is connected to the Internet carries the risk that the camera will be remotely activated without the knowledge or consent of the user," Bankston testified. "With millions upon millions of laptop web cams routinely being carried into the home and other private spaces, surreptitious video surveillance has become a newly pervasive threat," a threat that the law must be updated to address.

Bankston urged Congress to amend the law to better protect Americans from secret video surveillance, by clarifying that the government has to get a search warrant based on probable cause before engaging in unconsented video surveillance of the home or any other private place, and by prohibiting such surveillance by anyone else, be it a stalker, a computer criminal, your employer or your school.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Senator Specter agreed that it was time to close this gap in the law and said that he intended to introduce legislation this year to provide new privacy protections against video spying.

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