A jury will decide if a laptop-locating company went too far to recover a stolen laptop.
Did a laptop recovery company cross the line when it took screen captures of a woman using a stolen laptop to have sexually explicit chats over webcam with her boyfriend? Would it make a difference if they did it to provide the pictures to law enforcement? Those questions will be in the hands of a jury after a judge ruled that the woman and her boyfriend can sue the company for invasion of privacy.
Clark County School District in Ohio often checks out laptops to its students to use at school and at home. After a trip to the local library, one student had a school-issued laptop stolen. The laptop ended up being sold a couple times between students and as it passed hands, somewhere along the line, the serial number was removed from the computer.
Fortunately for Clark County School District, they’d enrolled in a program with Absolute Software that could recover stolen laptops--no serial number needed. Using just the computer’s IP address, the company can gain complete access to a computer and all of its files the next time it connects to the Internet. It can also watch a person’s activities in real time and record their keystrokes.
Unfortunately for 52-year-old substitute teacher Susan Clements-Jeffrey, she was in possession of the computer when Absolute activated its services and began tracking the laptop. As part of its investigation, Kyle Magnus, a theft recovery officer at Absolute recorded her keystrokes, IP address, and monitored her visits to Web sites. A few days later, he also captured screen shots of a webcam chat between Clements-Jeffrey and her boyfriend where she “is not wearing any clothes” and “has her legs spread apart.”
That same day, Magnus then turned the information he collected in to the Springfield Police--including the explicit pictures. The next day the police showed up at her house (without a warrant) with the pictures and she was arrested for receiving stolen property. The charges were later dropped and now Clements-Jeffrey has been cleared to sue the plaintiffs, Absolute Software (for invasion of privacy) and the Springfield Police (for searching her apartment without a warrant).
Absolute had previously requested a summary judgment arguing that past rulings say a person doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using stolen property. The company also argues that the rights of a user of stolen property can never trump the rights of a legal owner of the property. But U.S. District judge Walter Rice thought it would be best to let a jury decide.
“Although the Absolute Defendant 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. A reasonable jury could also find that such conduct would cause a person of ordinary sensibilities to suffer shame and humiliation. For these reasons, the Court overrules the Absolute Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment on this claim,” Rice wrote in his decision.
In June, Absolute Software announced it had located it 20,000th computer . More than 3,800 of these recoveries have been on college campuses and in K-12 school districts.
photo by edenpictures from flickr