Woman sues after firm tracking stolen laptop records nude video chats

Filed Under: Data loss, Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Late night flirtingImagine the scene.

You buy a second-hand laptop using it to, among other things, have secret sexy video chats with your significant other. Unbeknownst to you, naked photos of you are being taken by a company hired to track down the stolen laptop.

Ouch.

This is what has happened to Ohio-based Susan Clements-Jeffrey and her boyfriend.

Absolute Software is in the business of helping people recover their computers. Fair enough. But is taking nude snaps of the person using the stolen laptop a step too far?

U.S. District Judge Walter Rice thinks so, saying that Absolute Software may have violated 52-year-old widow Susan Clements-Jeffery's rights to privacy.

What does the judge have to do with this? Well, Susan is suing Absolute Software.

She is a substitute teacher who reportedly bought the computer from one of her students in 2008 for $60. The student told her it was a gift from his relatives, that he had got a new one, and this one was now for sale.

Turns out the laptop was stolen from Clark County School District in Ohio. They had purchased and installed Absolute Software's theft recovery service - called LoJack - onto their computers, so when the stolen laptop was connected to the internet, LoJack collected the teacher's IP address.

Rather than handing the information over the police to track her down, Absolute Software employee Kyle Magnus reportedly decided to intercept communications, including Susan Clements-Jeffery's saucy video chats.

Magnus then forwarded the collected information, including revealing pictures and sexy conversations to a police detective. According to Wired, the cops arrested Susan for receiving stolen property, but charges were soon dismissed.

Lying downSusan now is suing the lot of them: Absolute Software, their employee Kyle Magnus, the city of Springfield in Ohio, and the two cops who arrested her (did I mention the cops apparently waved the nude snaps when they first knocked on her door?)

So my take on this? I have no problems with Absolute Software and the cops trying to get the stolen laptop back. Fine. But using saucy pics to embarrass who ended up using the stolen property just screams 'a step too far' to me.

You can read a much more detailed report, written by Kim Zetter, on Wired.

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39 Responses to Woman sues after firm tracking stolen laptop records nude video chats

  1. anon · 1113 days ago

    so.. the only question that pops my mind is, why would you want to see nude pics of an 52 year old?

    • Err.. Sharon Stone anybody? Nigella Lawson?

      • Sandra · 1113 days ago

        Cher, Tina Turner, Demi Moore, George Clooney, Pierce Brosnan. Not everyone who's in their 50s and beyond is a wrinkle old prune.

    • Les · 1113 days ago

      Maybe you're 52 yourself give or take ?!

    • Geezer · 1113 days ago

      When I get tired of waving my cane at those darned kids while swinging on my rocker at my front porch, I like to kick back and look at hot pics of 50 year old milfs. Oh my, oh my... You just wait until you get to be my age.

    • Sanne · 1113 days ago

      *facepalm* You do not represent the entire human race when it concerns sexual preferences, kinks, fetishes and fantasies. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean others shouldn't either. We're individuals, some people prefer older men or women, others younger men or women. Sometimes they prefer both men and women. That's not a crime nor something they should be ridiculed for.

    • Michael · 900 days ago

      Some of us might, for research purposes and stuff.

  2. Jo Lynn · 1113 days ago

    I would think a teacher would know better than to purchase something from a student. Surprised there is not a rule about it.
    I thought everyone knew privacy with computers is always at risk.

    • aschengeschwandtner · 898 days ago

      I would think a student should know better than to sell hot goods to a teacher.

  3. Diane Kovacs · 1113 days ago

    Criminal charges should be filed. This is not acceptable. Tracking and locating, sending the police, monitoring and recording is ILLEGAL. These police officers need some serious retraining. This company needs to be sued into oblivion or at least into behaving legally.

    • WinterSnow · 1113 days ago

      The _point_ of Lojack is that it tracks your computer. I have the program installed on my laptop. You purchase it from Absolute as a theft recovery tool. If your computer is stolen, you report it as such, and the first time the stolen computer connects to the internet, the software contacts Absolute, and continues to do so every time it connects to the internet. One of their personnel then uses the information to locate the laptop and hand details over to the police, who can then recover your property. Tracking and monitoring stolen property so it can be returned to the owner and the thief can be charged is completely legal as far as I'm aware.

      What was wrong in this case, was the abuse of power of the security officer from Absolute Software, involved in tracking the computer, and potentially the insensitivity of the police officers too.

      • aschengeschwandtner · 898 days ago

        I have bought a few second hand computers or phones throughout my life. The first thing I did with all of them was wipe them out.

    • bearfoot · 1112 days ago

      Um.. wrong. You can install monitoring software on your own stuff.

      How else do you explain the legality of those "spy on your kids" type stuff.

      The issue here is that they did not act to recover stolen property and decided to document .. hanky panky for lack of a better word.

      • another anon · 1097 days ago

        no, absolute acted to get personal IDENTIFYING information about who stole the laptop, such as a photo and names from chat logs, so police could actually get the person with the stolon equipment. just an IP address is useless by itself.

        the fact that charges against her were dropped (doesn't say why, but presumably because she wasn't the one who stole it and supposedly didn't know it was stolen) doesn't mean the real owner did not have the right to record video on their own computer to find out who had it.

    • Shane · 837 days ago

      You realise the person being record is guilty of receive stolen goods? Regardless of whether the charges were dropped, she IS guilty of that.

      You buy a relativelty modern laptop with a webcam for $60, without any proof of prior ownership, then you've got to wonder about the legality of it.

      She is a victim in this, but not as much as the person who lost their laptop.

      But the police, the city, Absolute Software and their employee? 0% guilt as far as I am concerned. They're just doing what they needed to do to right a wrong. Sometimes there's collateral damage and certainly she is not 100% innocent in this.

      I hope she loses on all counts. She needs to be suing the student who sold her the laptop! Lets get real here Diane. But of course that students pockets are probably not as deep as the cities and Absolute Softwares, right?

      So who is unethical in this case? Please.

  4. I agree with you. The company has every right to track the laptop via IP, but what they did was wiretap and possibly intercepting interstate communication. That's a felony last I heard. The police had no right to the photos either. The security employee should go to federal jail, and the police should lose their jobs. They received material that was taken in a felony, if I did something like that I'd be charged with accessory.

    • Machin Shin · 1113 days ago

      I think the point you are missing here is that they had permission from the owner of the laptop. It is not the same thing as listening into some random phone line. If you had written permission from someone to listen in on their phone then it is not illegal. That is effectively what this is. You install a program and you can then give the company permission to listen in on the computer activity. It is your equipment and you have the right to do so. You do not lose ownership of something because it is stolen.

  5. Sanne · 1113 days ago

    I would sue them too. If they already knew the location of the laptop, then they had absolutely no valid reason to go this far. That's a privacy violation. Whatever happened to 'innocent until proven guilty'? They had no legal grounds to do this, all the info they needed was already in their possession without these pictures.

    • bearfoot · 1112 days ago

      Huh?

      Receiving a stolen laptop is not cause to think that someone might be breaking the law?

      I fail to see the logic here.

      Maybe they were waiting to see if she'd do anything with it herself so they could nab her for selling stolen property too...?

  6. Dennis · 1113 days ago

    Susan should have wiped the hard drive and reloaded the OS. Anyone could have loaded that machine up with malware and could be doing all kinds of illegal activities. Then who would have been responsible??...Susan would. So, she lost a bit of her dignity...

    • Bob · 1113 days ago

      duh - you need installation media to do that

    • Vgolfmaster · 1113 days ago

      Most of these are now handled within the BIOS, and wiping the hard drive or installing a new OS is pointless. This is by design, as wiping the hard drive or installing a new OS would be far too easy to prevent detection.

    • Alex · 1113 days ago

      LoJack works from the BIOS. Reloading the OS won't make any difference. Heck, even pulling out the hard drive completely does not get rid of the tracking software.

      • Alejandro · 1108 days ago

        you can always flash the bios with the original.

        • another anon · 1097 days ago

          absolute installs in a location outside the normal BIOS, so just reflashing the BIOS has no effect. you either need to pull/replace the chip or get access to the manufacturer's special disks that allow wiping that portion of the BIOS memory chip, and the manufacturers keep those disks out of the hands of the public for that very reason. even a real original owner cannot turn "off" the BIOS setting once it has been enabled; all they can do is stop paying absolute to care about any incoming reports.

  7. Machin Shin · 1113 days ago

    I can see how this would be a really touchy subject and I definitely agree that the use of the gathered information was distasteful. I personally do not see any way this should be considered illegal though. Just stop and think about it for a minute. You buy yourself a brand new laptop and so you now have the right to use it how you see fit. This includes installing software that takes pictures from time to time and reports other information back to a remote computer. This laptop is yours and you have the right to run these functions on it. Now when it gets stolen it is still your laptop running your software and you still have every right to have that on there.

    These people did not slip the laptop to some unsuspecting person with the intention of getting these pictures. It was stolen and the owners have every right to have that software running. Real lesson to be learned is to be mindful of buying used equipment because it could be stolen.

    • Autrach Sejanoz · 1113 days ago

      The laptop wasn't 'brand new', it was second hand.

      • Jay · 1113 days ago

        You've misunderstood. Machin meant the person that put LoJack on in the first place had bought it brand new and done so, then it got stolen from them. It wasn't second hand when LoJack was put on it

  8. T.Anne · 1113 days ago

    I think they went too far - should've handed over the IP and called it good. They are not the detectives. I think the employee knew what he was doing was wrong but is saying it was to "recover" the laptop.

    The other thing that bothers me about this story is - if installing their software means they can do that after you report it missing... who's to say that authority/ability isn't abused? How do we know they're not doing it with computers not reported stolen?

  9. FalseName · 1113 days ago

    They should have turned over the information to the police as soon as the stolen laptop was connected to the Internet and the software activated.

  10. Gerontophile · 1113 days ago

    This thread is useless without pictures!

  11. DRobertson · 1113 days ago

    Why would she buy a used computer, and NOT wipe it and reload the OS before using it in the first place? Unless you by a new computer, you never know what a computer was used for prior you buying it. Common sense is not so common (yes, old saying but it does apply here)

  12. DRobertson · 1113 days ago

    Here is another line of thought about this case.

    Part 1...

    A 52-yo substitute teacher buys a computer from a student for $60 dollars. This should have raised at least a yellow flag. If this situation was presented to me, the fist thing I would do would be contact the kid’s parents to insure it was ok to buy the computer.

    After confirming it was ok to buy the computer from the kid, she should have wiped it with any one of the multi-pass programs out there, then reloaded the OS.

    She was in possession of stolen property. She might have bought it not knowing it was stolen and not be charged, but technically it was not hers.

    Continued in Part 2....

  13. DRobertson · 1113 days ago

    Here is another line of thought about this case.

    Part 2...

    All in all, she was not being careful…dare I say stupid.

    Absolute Software will probably fight it. Employee Kyle Magnus should be fired. The cops should be reprimanded. Keep in mind, the pictures was evidence and they should not have been presented that evidence to the suspect (the 52-yo teacher) at the time of arrest. All the cops need is a search warrant to enter the house and seize the computer. Besides, the photos were incidental to the case. The strongest evidence would be the testimony Absolute Software would have supplied.

    Frankly, I don’t think the teacher has a leg to stand on. I think it will be either be thrown out of court or she will lose. She will only publicly embarrass herself more.

    • Jamie · 1112 days ago

      The problem with your theory is that not everyone knows about multi-pass write/erase software. Most people just know how to open up a web browser and go to Youtube.

      Just because what you /would/ have done may have mitigated the situation, doesn't make this woman any less unfortunate. At the end of the day she just bought a laptop in good faith and unfortunately had her privacy compromised.

      Tracing of computers should be done via IP ONLY and then a CAREFULLY selected photo of the user if that would help criminal proceedings, for example a face shot to prove that person X was using the computer. They should not be used to invade peoples personal photographs, etc.

      • Joe · 1112 days ago

        By the very nature of the internet anything transmitted over it without proper encryption should not be considered personal or private. I wish more people would understand that. These were NOT personal photographs, it was live streaming video between at a minimum of 2 parties (and at least one unknown party at the time).

        I tell all my users that if you do not want something to become public knowledge do not post it in an email or on a website. Do not say something about a person in an email you would not say to their face. Do not email personal pictures or other info that might compromise you in any way.
        Even with good encryption there is always the possibility these things can become public knowledge, it is best to use good sense which seems in short supply these days.

  14. Joe · 1112 days ago

    As previously stated "wiping the hard drive" would probably not have worked. The various types of this kind of software I have worked with in the past are either part of the bios chip on the motherboard (the best kind) or set up on a small hidden partition on the hard drive that is usually not touched by most utilities that will erase the hard drive.

    If the computer in question has a camera on it, it is common practice to grab some stills from it as part of the evidence used to retrieve the computer. How the photos were used in this case was probably not the correct way to do it though.

    As DRobertson pointed out the teacher should have used a bit more "good" sense before she made this purchase.
    Also I have seen viruses that can be used to activate a camera remotely w/o the users knowledge so personally I wouldn't parade around in front of the camera in the buff!

  15. Marek · 1106 days ago

    Today's technology started to make life easier starts to be much more disgusting in ordinary keybord operators with "strange horizons" - I really no not aprecciated Kyle Magnus involvement. People should use brain before they use PC keybord... how he dare to collect personal data of somenodys - his job was to track device, not privet (any) correspondence!

  16. spyware · 1097 days ago

    An ip alone cannot recover laptop. Need face id incase many people in house or wifi is used from neighbour etc.

    The photo is a snapshot, and can be set automatic to take on connection to internet. Security man doesnt choose the the photo, he just recovers it from the file system. He handed info to police as a good citizen should.

    She accepted stolen goods so should be looked at and thank greatfull honest people informed her. In bad hands they eould have waites
    D for worst pictures and bribed her.

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About the author

Hi. I am a social, brand and communications expert with 10 years in senior roles in the tech space. I'm currently Sophos' s Global Director of Social Media and Communities. Proudest work achievement? Creating and launching award-winning Naked Security. Outside work, I am a mean cook, an avid reader, a chronic insomniac, a podcast obsessive and blogger .