Privacy Law

New laws are needed to protect people from webcam spying, report says

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Existing laws don’t adequately protect computer users from digital spying on their webcams, according to a new report by a law professor and two lawyers.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been targeted by secret activation of their webcams, but they have little recourse under federal law, according to the report (PDF), Digital Peepholes. The authors are IIT Chicago-Kent law professor Lori Andrews and lawyers Michael Holloway and Dan Massoglia.

Barriers to recourse are a minimum $5,000 damages requirement in the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and outdated language in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, according to an executive summary (PDF). The ECPA is intended to cover secret eavesdropping on electronic communications as they occur, and courts have held the law does not apply to secret webcam photos, the report says.

Some businesses have used webcams on rental computers to spy on their customers, while others have activated remote access software when a computer is stolen in an attempt to find the culprit. Hackers using software that costs less than $40 have used webcams to film victims while nude or while having sex, and have used images to sell or to extort their victims for more pictures.

The FBI has the capability to activate a webcam without turning on the warning light, but it is unknown how often the agency has done so.

In one case, information services personnel at a Pennsylvania school district used remote access software on school-issued computers to collect thousands of screenshots and webcam photos from students, the report says. The FBI declined to prosecute, saying existing laws did not cover the situation.

The authors call for state and federal laws to provide a civil remedy to victims of secret webcam spying. The authors also say remote spying should not be allowed by businesses or law enforcement.

The report is the culmination of a two-year investigation by faculty, students, and legal fellows at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, according to a press release.

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