Tracking Stolen Laptops: Is Taking Nude Photos of 'Thieves' Going Too Far?

We've all heard the cool stories about how people are able to recover their stolen electronics using various tracking services. But one gadget-tracking service may have gone too far--a U.S. District Judge has ruled against Absolute Software for capturing sexually explicit images of a woman using a "stolen" laptop.

According to Wired, U.S. District Judge Walter Rice rejected a motion by Absolute Software for a summary judgment (without trial) in its favor; Absolute Software claims that one of its agents did nothing wrong when he used the gadget-tracking software to take screenshots of sexually explicit images of Susan Clements-Jeffrey. Judge Rice believes that the agent may have gone too far, potentially violating the Clements-Jeffrey's privacy.

"It is one thing to cause a stolen computer to report its IP address or its geographical location in an effort to track it down," Rice wrote in his decision. "It is something entirely different to violate federal wiretapping laws by intercepting the electronic communications of the person using the stolen laptop."

Now, you might say that someone who steals a laptop in the first place gives up his or her right to privacy. However, Clements-Jeffrey, a 52-year-old substitute teacher in Ohio, did not steal the laptop--rather, she purchased it from one of her students, who purchased it from another student.

The story is long, but here's the quick summary: The laptop originally belonged to the Clark County School District of Ohio. The machine was stolen by a student in April 2008, and then purchased by another student for $40. The second student turned around and sold the laptop to Clements-Jeffrey for $60, claiming that his aunt and uncle had given him the laptop.

Clements-Jeffrey thus believed she'd purchased a legally obtained laptop.

Anyway, the Clark County School District had installed Absolute's theft recovery service, including LoJack, on the laptop. The school district reported the laptop stolen, and Absolute began collecting IP info whenever Clements-Jeffrey logged on.

Absolute should have turned over the IP address to the police, and then subpoenaed Clements-Jeffrey's Internet Service Provider to get her name and address. But instead, Absolute theft officer Kyle Magnus went a step further: He accessed the laptop remotely, and intercepted Clements-Jeffrey's personal communications, including her communications with her boyfriend. Magnus even went so far as to grab screenshots of Clements-Jeffrey sexily naked in front of the webcam. According to court documents, Magnus also recorded her keystrokes and monitored her Web surfing.

At least Magnus did the right thing with all of this information--he sent the info, pictures, and recorded conversations to the police. The police then arrested Clements-Jeffrey for receiving stolen property, but those charges were dismissed a week later.

So now Clements-Jeffrey, along with her boyfriend, are suing Absolute Software, Kyle Magnus, the city of Springfield, Ohio, and two police officers. The defendants maintain that Clements-Jeffrey should have known that the laptop was stolen property, based on the extremely low price she paid for it and the fact that the serial number had been scraped off of the machine, and therefore that she had no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The judge, in dismissing the defendants' motion for summary judgment, says that "a reasonable jury could find that [Absolute Software] crossed an impermissible boundary."

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