Laptop Tracking System and Privacy Lawsuit – How far can someone go when tracking stolen goods?
A federal judge has decided to allow a lawsuit to proceed between a couple and a laptop tracking system called LoJack for Laptops for intercepting and sharing a couple’s private, sexually explicit communications with police, according to Wired Magazine.
While working as a substitute teacher at an “alternative high school” in Ohio in 2008, a woman, Clements-Jeffrey, 52, bought a laptop from one of her students for $60. The low price probably should have made her think twice about purchasing the computer. But she decided to proceed because the student told her that the laptop was not working properly and that his parents had given him a new one.
The laptop actually had been reported stolen by a student who had checked it out from another school district while using it at a public library. But at the time she bought it, Mrs. Clements-Jeffrey did not realize the laptop was stolen.
She got the laptop to work properly and then began using it to communicate with her long-distance boyfriend. Because of the time and distance between the couple, their correspondence was at times quite sexually explicit, including steamy emails, instant messages, and the exchange of naked photos.
Unbeknownst to Mrs. Clements-Jeffrey and her boyfriend, the laptop had a computer tracking system installed on it. The laptop tracking system was called “LoJack for Laptops” and was provided by Absolute Software.
After the school district realized the laptop had been stolen, they asked Absolute Software to retrieve information from the laptop in order to recover it. Once the tracking system was activated, it reported the laptop’s IP address, and granted Absolute remote access over the computer – giving Absolute the ability to intercept emails, capture screenshots, and log key strokes.
Absolute captured screenshots of the couple while exchanging naked photos and other sexually explicit behavior. The tracking system company, Absolute Software, then sent all of the data to local police including the teacher’s sexually explicit images and location data.
Shortly after, the police arrived at Clements-Jeffrey’s house with a warrant to seize the laptop. She was shocked and told the officers she did not was not aware that the laptop was stolen.
According to a judicial opinion in the case, the officers “told her that she was stupid and that she was under arrest” for receiving stolen property. They also showed her the photos and “told her she should have known better than to do that kind of stuff on the webcam.” One of the detectives even told Clements-Jeffery the photos were “disgusting.”
The charges against Clements-Jeffrey were eventually dropped, but she sued the police department and Absolute Software for invasion of privacy, constitutional violations (on the part of the police department) and violating computer crime laws. The case raises interesting questions about how intrusive a laptop tracking system should be and whether the software company had gone too far with its techniques.
According to the Federal judge hearing the case, “Although the Absolute defendants may have had a noble purpose, to assist the school district in recovering its stolen laptop, a reasonable jury could find that they crossed an impermissible boundary when they intercepted Plaintiffs’ instant messages and webcam communications,” wrote the judge. “A reasonable jury could also find that such conduct would cause a person of ordinary sensibilities to suffer shame and humiliation.”
The judge’s 49-page judgment also suggests that Absolute may need to rethink its laptop recovery business model. “It is one thing to cause a stolen computer to report its IP address or geographical location in an effort to track it down,” wrote the judge. “It is something entirely different to violate federal wiretapping laws by intercepting electronic communications of the person using the stolen laptop.”