When a substitute teacher bought a used laptop from one of her high school students for $60, she probably thought she was getting a great deal. Little did she know that it was stolen, and that the theft recovery technician tracking it was not only recording her sex chats with her boyfriend, but sending police her naked webcam images.
Now Susan Clements-Jeffrey, a 52-year-old widow, is suing the software company responsible for the tracking program, its arguably overzealous "theft recovery officer" and the two police officers who showed her the images. These included shots of the naked woman meant only for her long-distance sweetheart. Officers Geoffrey Ashworth and Noel Lopez allegedly mocked and humiliated her about the images when they arrived at her residence to arrest her for receiving the stolen goods.
Charges were dismissed within a week.
Her allegation: They not only intentionally invaded the privacy of the couple, but also violated her fourth and 14th amendment rights that protect citizens from unlawful search and seizure, and guarantees due process.
Wired's Kim Zetter gives the nitty gritty on the case, which took place in Springfield, Oh. in the late spring and summer of 2008. Court documents reveal more details: that the computer was the property of the Clark County School District and reported stolen from a student studying at the public library and that it exchanged hands at least once more before Clements-Jeffrey purchased it. The school district had a contract with Absolute Software for its theft recovery services, which included installing LoJack for Laptops on the devices. This allowed Absolute and the employee assigned to the file, Kyle Magnus, to monitor emails, chats and capture screenshots to help track down the stolen laptop. Clements-Jeffrey asserts the company could have stopped its efforts after obtaining the computer's IP address.
One of the core disputes between the parties involved is whether Clements-Jeffrey knew the laptop was stolen. She claims she didn't, while the defendants said she should have known by the filed off serial number and the student's criminal background (which she claims she was not aware of).
Clements-Jeffrey claims she bought the laptop with the understanding it was two years old and not working, but she had another teacher help her by reinstalling the operating system and making it operable again.
In his 49-page decision to allow the lawsuit to proceed, U.S. District Court Judge Walter H. Rice did not agree with Clements-Jeffrey's fourth amendment allegation, but he did acknowledge violations of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Stored Communications Act.
Rice admonished Absolute in his ruling:
"It is one thing to cause a stolen computer to report its IP address or geographical location in an effort to track it down. It is something entirely different to violate federal wiretapping laws by intercepting the electronic communications of the person using the stolen laptop."
He added, "Based on the evidence presented, a reasonable jury could find that, with respect to the keystroke capture, the Absolute defendants 'intentionally accessed' data stored on the laptop 'without authorization' to do so."
Absolute tried to use, in its defense, cases of other companies and what they'd done to recover stolen property. We've written about it, too, but in those cases, the thieves were targeted, not those who were not aware they had hot goods.
Rice offered another warning, and other security companies may well take heed:
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 they crossed an impermissible boundary when they intercepted the 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.
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