Laptop tracking infringes privacy

A US judge has decided that those who steal laptops, or receive them from a bloke in a pub, have some privacy rights.

In a landmark decision, US District Judge Walter Rice decided that an Ohio woman and her boyfriend can sue a laptop-tracking company that recorded their sexually explicit communications as part of an effort to identify thieves who stole the computer the woman was using.

Absolute Software, which provides software and services for tracking stolen computers wanted a a summary judgement insisting its theft recovery agents acted properly.

Its agent used captured sexually explicit images of Susan Clements-Jeffrey communicating via webcam with her boyfriend and passed them to coppers to recover the stolen computer.

The judge said that there were grounds to believe Absolute had gone too far.

He said that it was one thing to cause a stolen computer to report its IP address or its geographical location in an effort to track it down. But video taping people violates federal wiretapping laws by intercepting the electronic communications of the person using the stolen laptop.

Clements-Jeffrey, a substitute teacher, bought the hot laptop from one of her students in 2008.

However, it belonged to the Clark County School District in Ohio, and had been stolen from one of its students in April 2008. Another student bought it for $40, even though he suspected it was stolen, and turned around and offered it to Clements-Jeffrey for $60 claiming that his aunt and uncle had given him the laptop, but that he no longer needed it after getting a new one.

Clements-Jeffrey, who was a 52-year-old widow, had got in touch with her high school sweetheart, Carlton Smith, who lived in Boston. They swapped sexually explicit email and instant messages, using the computer.

Clark County School District used Absolute’s theft recovery service, LoJack, which gives Absolute employees remote access to a stolen computer and allows them to record and intercept any data from the machine.

But Absolute theft officer Kyle Magnus began to remotely intercept e-mail and other electronic communications going to and from Clements-Jeffrey’s machine in real time. The Judge argues that he did not have to do this as he had enough information to find the stolen laptop and get the coppers to call around.

Magnus also captured three screenshots from her laptop monitor, which showed Clements-Jeffrey naked in the webcam images. Coppers arrested and charged her for receiving stolen property. The charges, however, were dismissed.