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Laptop tracking firm may have violated wiretap law

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A federal judge is allowing a lawsuit to proceed against a laptop-tracking service that surreptitiously intercepted explicit images from a public school teacher during an investigation of a stolen computer.

Susan Clements-Jeffrey filed the suit against Absolute Software after one of its employees captured steamy chats and naked images of her and her out-of-state boyfriend, according to an article from Wired.com and other reports. The investigation, which intercepted images of the woman naked and her legs spread, commenced after a used computer she bought for $60 from one of her students had Absolute's LoJack for Laptops installed on it – and the laptop turned out to be stolen property.

Clements-Jeffrey claims she first learned the laptop was stolen when police brandishing copies of the steamy images arrested her for possession of stolen property. The charges were dropped shortly after.

She sued Absolute, its employee, the city of Springfield, Ohio, and two of its police officers for violations of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which prohibits the secret interception and disclosure of contents from wire, oral, or electronic communications.

The defendants asked the judge hearing the case for a summary judgement finding that she had no reasonable expectation of privacy because the computer she was using was stolen. The price of the laptop and a serial number that had been scratched off should have tipped her off that the machine had been misappropriated, they argued in a motion that asked the suit be resolved in their favor.

US District Judge Walter Rice of the southern district of Ohio declined. He said there were grounds to believe the defendants had gone too far and that the matter would be better decided by a jury.

“It is one thing to cause a stolen computer to report its IP address or its geographical location in an effort to track it down,” Rice wrote. “It is something entirely different to violate federal wiretapping laws by intercepting the electronic communications of the person using the stolen laptop.”

It's too early to know how the case will turn out, but it's likely Clements-Jeffrey and her boyfriend have radically altered their expectations of privacy when it comes to internet communications. More from the Internet Cases blog and Forbes here and here.

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