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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 …

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Hmmm...

I'm not a US citizen, so I don't know how vaguely phrased the wire tap laws are, but was this actually a wire tap?

As I understand it, the monitoring software allows remote access to the laptop, allowing files and screen grabs to be taken remotely. The phrase "wire tap" certainly brings to mind an interception of data which is already being transmitted.

Having said all that it's quite amusing. The teacher really should have noticed the low price and certainly the scratched off serial number. If she was a teacher at the school which owned the laptop, then she certainly should have been aware that the laptops were issued by the school and not owned by the students!

And whoever intercepted the "naughty" images really should have done a bit of editing. You only need the face of the "offender" to identify her, I doubt the police required her to drop her knickers and assume the position so they could make a positive ID!

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The owner gave permission.

The genuine owner no doubt gave permission for the laptop to broadcast said information. I would have thought that the lawsuit will demonstrate that, and that the "teacher" involved will not win, but this is america and lawsuits often end up with hilariously wrong conclusions!

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Anonymous Coward

@Steve Evans, RE editing photos

As soon as you edit (doctor) them they become inadmissible as evidence at best, and possibly opening the editor up to charges of tampering with evidence at worst.

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What police carry around is not evidence

The printouts police took with them on the investigation would not be admissible as evidence any-ways -- because access to them is not strictly controlled.

The actual evidence for the court is the original image files.

You retain the uncensored image files as evidence in court, but you give police officers the censored images to carry as evidence while looking for the criminal.

That is a police procedural error, not the fault of anyone else.

It would be terrible if this law suit succeeds because it opens up things like banning finger print scanners and so on.

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@ Keith T

I'm not sure how you get from a lawsuit claiming that it is wrong to intercept images and store them to it being the thin end of the wedge leading to the banning of fingerprint readers. In general, fingerprint readers are localised to the machine, and don't store images other than those properly registered. Intercepting images, no matter how innocent, at a remote location, storing them, and printing them off is an entirely different thing. Even if the machine was stolen, the mistaken buyer still has rights to privacy (innocent unless proven guilty, remember). The argument that the defence are using (a deal too good to be true) is unsatisfactory, since it implies that there is a difference between the buyer of a stolen article at one price, and another buyer at another price. That should not be sustainable in court - it is merely an indication, not evidence.

Overall, one would hope teachers would be brighter than this one, but she still has rights. Your argument just doesn't hold water, I'm afraid.

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heh

I'll get the first post in, and ask for photos or it didnt happen?

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Coat

Well OK but ..

if she looks like Les Dawson in a pinny...pleased don't.

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Paris Hilton

@howard bowen 1

Since she appears to have been studying for a BA 1973-77 you're probably nearer the mark than the OP.

Paris because she knows a lot about this type of picture.

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Anonymous Coward

slightly shamefacely

I don't think you've seen photographs of Les Dawson's daughter or you wouldn't be saying that. Extraordinarily good looking.

Anonymous because

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Coat

As is customary...

Pics or it didnt happen!

ill get my coat.. with the crumpled pics in the pockets.

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Anonymous Coward

So... Where are the images?

For informational purposes only.... It'd be nice to know what sort of quality and.... other technical terminology.... remote frame buffer...

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Anonymous Coward

More or less public

I don't regard anything I do on the web as private, just different grades of public. That includes email, having had my mailbox scanned following an industrial tribunal disclosure order. (fruitless I am happy to report.)

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Coat

I don't approve of having 'relations' on Laptops

you keep falling off. It's dangerous.

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Idiocy on part of tracking co

They had no need to supply the sex pics.

If they had just recorded her using the laptop for less headline making purposes there would have been no case to answer. But they had to go for the titillation angle.

I would guess the judge in this case is in part allowing it to proceed due to the nature of the privacy breach.

The tracking company obviously needs reminding that just because someone is using a stolen laptop it does not automatically make them a criminal or impact their rights.

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May I just point out:

"just because someone is using a stolen laptop it does not automatically make them a criminal"

Err, yes it does. Unless of course you happen to live in some obscure country where possession of stolen property is not a crime. Criminal = Someone who has committed a crime.

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Alert

and there lies the nub.

Exactly. From what written of the Judges summary it is not illegal to use the webcam to snap a suspect BUT it is illegal to intercept their communications. Whilst these may sound the same they are distinctly different. as Gordon10 points out. An individual has a right to private communication, as was going on in this case. However, the stolen property also has the right to take occasional pictures, though not necessarily to intercept communication streams though! Proving that distinction is what is required here. If the laptop was just forwarding images whilst the cam was enabled that could be lawful. If the laptop was forwarding images from a "protected by law" communication that may not be legal. So what's the difference>? well it could be argued either way. One argument is that the images were captured native from the cam prior to going to communication software, However the opposing argument says that the camera forms the communication.. I can see why its going to need a ruling!

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Not!

You may be a victim having paid money for the stolen laptop thinking it were not stolen. Now you're out laptop AND cash. As for missing serial numbers, every laptop I ever had has/had the serial number on a little sticker on the bottom. 75% of the serial number stickers have been worn to illegibility, rubbed off, torn in half or otherwise become totally useless. I am not surprised the teacher/victim did not perceive missing serial number as a suggestion the laptop was stolen.

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Hard to feign innocence

Maybe this teacher is really trusting, or just a bit dumb. But I would expect red flags would have started going up for an average person the minute they were offered a laptop for sale. Especially by one of their students for such a low price.

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@Badvok

>> >>"just because someone is using a stolen laptop it does not automatically make them a criminal"

>>"Err, yes it does. Unless of course you happen to live in some obscure country where possession of stolen property is not a crime. Criminal = Someone who has committed a crime."

Possession of stolen goods by someone who had no particular reason to suspect they were stolen typically isn't a crime.

It's fairly easy to see why - for example, I could buy something from a shop nicely boxed up in the original packaging, but for all I know, it could have been previously stolen from a warehouse and sold to the shop-owner.

If I buy something on ebay and the item later turns out to have been stolen, how can I be held legally responsible unless there's a particular reason I should have suspected it was a dodgy deal?

Even with private sales, a great deal comes down to how much I trust the person concerned. If I buy something from someone who I have no reason to suspect of criminality, that'd be different from buying from someone I knew regularly dealt in stolen goods.

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@DrXym

>>Maybe this teacher is really trusting, or just a bit dumb. But I would expect red flags would have started going up for an average person the minute they were offered a laptop for sale. Especially by one of their students for such a low price."

I guess it depends on the age/quality of the laptop, and the accompanying story.

It's certainly possible for the secondhand value of a few-year-old laptop to be fairly low, given the price and features of new ones, and the possibility of an ageing battery.

It's also easy for people to end up with surplus hardware.

If a laptop is presented as having been made obsolete by an upgrade, or is described as a dead relative's old machine that isn't being used, or as a machine bought as defective that had been simply repaired, a low price might not seem particularly suspicious.

If someone wasn't particularly tech-savvy, it might not be hard to convince them that a fairly new/fast machine was further behind the curve than it really was.

It's also possible that a teacher might think that a pupil (unless they're known to be a dodgy character) might be unlikely to try to sell stolen goods to *them*, maybe especially if they see themselves as having an air of the honest citizen about them.

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Anonymous Coward

Receiving stolen property

I think there are situations when it's OK to receive stolen property: if the police confiscate stolen property and are unable to find the owner then after a while they auction it and it becomes "legal" again and may then be legally sold on again, although it was at one point stolen. Or am I wrong about that? Do the police destroy the recovered goods, keep them for ever, or sell them with the condition that they can never be sold again? Or do the police sell the stolen goods then arrest the suckers who buy them? That sounds quite plausible, come to think of it ...

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Boffin

@DrXym

PC world is currently selling a HP Pavilion/AMD E-350/4GB/500GB for £349, would you give me £60 for my 6 year old HP Pavilion/Pentium 4/512 MB/80GB & crappy video card laptop.....

please!!!!

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Stolen Goods

I doubt the circumstances protect her from a stolen goods charge. In England, there are a few get-outs based on "open sale", but it doesn't sound as though they'd apply, even if the law was the same.

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Coat

Here's the thing about feigning innocence

you can get a cheap crappy laptop for ~200-300 dollars now. So how much should one charge for an old cheap crappy laptop, or an older laptop in general. At first i was of the belief that $60 is simply too low for a laptop, but i'm thinking that most laptops cost ~1000-2000. That simply isn't true anymore. Most laptops cost less than $500 now, especially netbooks design for online wordprocessing, video conferencing, etc... They have to compete with iPads selling for about the same price.

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@Badvok

""just because someone is using a stolen laptop it does not automatically make them a criminal"

Err, yes it does. Unless of course you happen to live in some obscure country where possession of stolen property is not a crime. Criminal = Someone who has committed a crime."

Correction: Criminal = Someone WHO HAS BEEN CONVICTED OF a crime. It really is disappointing to see so many people trotting out the tired old line of "criminals don't deserve rights" for stuff that the police or other parties do before they've even cautioned the alleged "perp".

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Well good thing

Well good thing you are not the judge. You have to knowing be in possession of stolen goods. Here is a real world example . People have unwittingly bought a stolen car from car dealerships. If they hand you the title of that car would you expect it to be stolen ? Would you toss that person in Jail ?

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Not so fast

She bought it from a student. In some countries if you buy something from a minor and it turns out to be stolen then you are at fault.

Any teacher with half a brain would deal with a parent and not enter into deals with her students.

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It was US $60

That's about £37.50. But if the teacher is also quite old then it might not seem an unreasonable price to them. They wouldn't know.

Anything with a camera in it, though, I think realistically you'd expect to pay more.

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US judge backs Wikileaks, Pirate Bay, et al!

"... prohibits the secret interception ..."

Um, if the owner has installed this anti-theft software, doesn't that mean the owner has consented to what it does?

If the thief is allowed to argue "noone told me, so it was secret", doesn't that open a Three Wise Monkeys defence not only to unlimited trading in stolen laptops, but also to all kinds of intellectual property, secret information, etc that might be on them as unencumbered?

All of which (almost) gives official backing to Wikileaks and other sites we thought were thorns in its side!

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@Nick Kew

>>"Um, if the owner has installed this anti-theft software, doesn't that mean the owner has consented to what it does?"

But surely all that means is that the rightful owner isn't in a position to complain about the software being run.

To the extent that running the software might infringe on someone else's real or claimed rights, the consent of the laptop's owner doesn't seem to be of overarching importance.

Even if it's legal for the software to run to establish the location of the PC, there's a clear possibility for the software to seriously impact on the privacy of an unwitting buyer, and it would seem that there's some kind of obligation not to collect, store or distribute more information than is necessary or reasonable.

The fact that the defendants were arguing not simply that the laptop was stolen but that the buyer should have been suspicious suggests that even *they* think that the expectation of privacy should depend to some extent on how much someone suspects the machine of being stolen.

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Wait

So she buys a stolen computer and is essentially complaining about the software which was preinstalled on her stolen computer? Sounds to me like she deserved everything she got and more.

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Re: Wait

Perhaps you missed the judge's take on the matter:

"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.”

The anti-theft software should confine itself to figuring out where the laptop is. The judge clearly feels that "two feet south of a beaver" isn't useful in this regard.

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Location is not proof of possesion or use

Location is not proof of possession or use or knowledge of the existence of.

So there is a general legal need for webcam photos to prove the use, possession, and knowledge of the existence of the stolen merchandise.

(And generally you need more than the location of the PC more precisely than within 50 feet to even locate it.)

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Boffin

@Keith

What you _would like_ and _what you should be allowed to take_ are generally held to be different things in a civilised society, though of course we are talking about yankland here, who still think that a death penalty is reasonable.

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Not All Theft Recovery Solutions Have Backdoors

I am the Founder & CEO of GadgetTrak, we also provide theft recovery software for laptops, however take a very different approach. We have always taken issue with the "back door" approach where staff are granted access to customer's systems, we also do not take screenshots. We do gather location data and capture photos of who is using the device along with network data, however this information is sent directly to the owner of the device, the software can even be configured to use their own mail servers. The information we gather is enough for law enforcement to follow up on the recovery and our high recovery rate speaks to this. No system should grant employees with back doors into their customers' systems, the weakest link in the security chain is always human.

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Trollface

hmmmm

as they say, Screenshot or it didn't happen!

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Oh good grief

The proper owner may have 'given permission' for communications to be monitored but that's utterly irrelevant. The two people whose conversations were recorded didn't. One of them may have (apparently innocently) bought a stolen laptop but that doesn't mean their basic human rights go out the window. And, has been pointed out, the monitoring company didn't need to keep the images and they certainly didn't need to hand them over to the police. All they needed to give them was a location. If they're that blaze about the stuff they catch, do you feel perfectly sure they're not capturing stuff without the laptop having been reported stolen?

The monitoring company will get their arses handed to them if they go to court, which I suspect they won't end up doing. They'll settle and it'll cost them significantly more than the price of a new laptop.

Jesus, you have to love geeks. As liberal as anything until you suggest their kit might be at risk, then they veer half way past Tory.

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Anonymous Coward

in that case..

If my laptop gets stolen then I will be breaking the law and subject to this type of lawsuit.

My laptop is configured to use my own mail server.

My mail server is configured to intercept and save every piece of mail that passes through it.

Therefore, should somebody steal my laptop and use it to send their own email then I will be intercepting it.

NOTES:

1. The firewall on the laptop automatically redirects any outgoing email connection to my mail server on a non-standard port.

2. The laptop automatically authenticates with the mail server

3. The mail server has no sender/recipient restrictions for authenticated connections.

4. Its non of your damn business why I have to have a setup like this.

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Linux

I'' make sure to wipe it clean

The penguin will help.

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Re: in that case..

Well, if you've configured it that way for your own use and you interception of other people's email is incidental, you're probably alright, as long as you take action to sort it out if the problem ever arises in real-world use.

But if you've done it to spy on the wife/kids/whoever-else-uses-your-laptop, you're already breaking the law designedly, so the court would no doubt find against you in a dispute with a third party.

OTOH...

Most people who buy a cheap laptop off some bloke in the pub will probably be webmail users anyway....

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The Indomitable Gall

As long as the laptop is in my possession all use of it is 100% legal, so no it isn't set up to spy on the wife or anybody else.

The phrase "you're probably alright (sic)" does not fill me with confidence.

Should this school teacher succeed in her lawsuit then that will effectively mean that if somebody steals my laptop and uses it to send their own mail then I will be violating federal wire-tapping laws by intercepting the email.

It will also mean that it is possible to have your computer configured in such a way that if somebody steals it then you will be breaking the law.

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Pirate

Port 25 redirect?

I would suppose that it would have a lot to do with your intent and what you did with any email that you intercepted from your stolen laptop. One way to prevent liability would be to simply disable mail service from your laptop on your server when you discover that your laptop is missing or stolen. My guess is that many or most people now send mail using HTTPS, they won't know that SMTP traffic is disabled.

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@AC

>>"Should this school teacher succeed in her lawsuit then that will effectively mean that if somebody steals my laptop and uses it to send their own mail then I will be violating federal wire-tapping laws by intercepting the email."

>>"It will also mean that it is possible to have your computer configured in such a way that if somebody steals it then you will be breaking the law."

If somebody stole your laptop and it had been (entirely reasonably) set up in such a way as to direct all mail through your mail server, or to do anything else that might impinge on the privacy of someone using it but which was a reasonable way of setting up the machine for your own use, I guess the sensible thing to do would be to report both the theft and the nature of the machine to the police, and let them advise you what you can and can't safely do in terms of keeping or examining any data collected.

Depending where you are, quite possibly local police might not have much of a clue, but at least involving them would seem sensible, since ultimately even if you could find out enough information to locate the machine, you might well need police help to recover it safely and/or legally, and in terms of collecting evidence for a prosecution in a legal manner, they'd seem likely to be the ones who'd know what to do.

There wouldn't be much point collecting emails or intercepting keystrokes from someone admitting to stealing the machine if that might not be admissible evidence, particularly if, taking a different approach, it might have been possible to collect evidence that *was* usable.

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Boffin

cheap laptop != stolen

Just because it is cheap doesn't make it stolen.

You don't know what the one careful previous owner (and 3 reckless ones) have done to the laptop-

case in point - do you want a machine who's keyboard has been used as part of ... ahem ... out of state relations ...

Do you know it hasn't?

Has that impacted the percieved value of your purchase?

Now wash your hands.

icon for PPE of course.

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Childcatcher

Isn't contributing to juvenile delinquency a firing offense for teachers?

On what basis were the charges of receiving stolen merchandise dismissed? Having a b/f on the police force, being a fellow government employee, or what?

It is terrible that a teacher who received obviously stolen property from one of her students is still employed.

Isn't contributing to the juvenile delinquency of one of your students a firing offense for teachers in the USA?

Or is theft so widespread there it is no longer viewed as juvenile delinquency.

Oh, perfectly permissible for a teacher to buy a newish laptop for $60, with the serial number scraped off.

But big crime to track down the receiver of stolen merchandise.

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Cellphone case rulings have said location data is confidential too

Cellphone case rulings have said location data is confidential too.

So if photos are ruled inadmissible and frivolous evidence, too private to legally collect from a stoeln device, expect future rulings that physical location data and IP address to be as well.

My suspicion is that this is a case of a well connected person abusing the legal process for their selfish ends, without regard to the precedents it will set in state law and US law.

Anonymity advocates have successfully worked to outlaw cyber serial numbers. I suspect one day physical serial numbers will be outlawed too.

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Bronze badge

There's a subtle distinction

It's not having a stolen laptop snap pictures and send them back that is prohibited (although as seen in the school spying case a while back, you can still get in trouble this way if you go too far), this case apparently involved *intercepting* photos she was sending to her boyfriend. That's what made it illegal (or potentially so).

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Cheap? Not at $60

A $60 second hand laptop is hardly cheap, especially if it looked well used and not just in the serial number area (easy to disfigure without drawing attention, I'd guess). I could even fall short of being a bargain if older than 18 months, but I can't judge that without more info.

The new 'owner' may have been naive about the hardware, but none of us know her understanding of PC's etc.

The judge, I assume as pointed out by others, has taken offense at the way the enforcement people involved, decided to play with her essentially private communications (yes they are in law).

I'd say they were somewhat more naive if they thought they would not get challenged and I'm very glad the gal and her man have bothered to bring this to court for proper consideration.

Pretty brave really.

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Wiretap law

It would be, and is, legal for the laptop tracking company to put something on that laptop to track it. It would be, and is, legal for the laptop tracking company to put something on that laptop that takes pix of whoever's using the laptop (providing that the laptop has a built-in camera, which it appears that this one did) and use those pix to identify whoever was using the laptop at the location being tracked. It would be, and is, legal for the laptop tracking company to hand those pix to the cops and for the cops to use those pix to identify the person using the stolen laptop.

If the laptop tracking company had confined itself to doing that, it would be an open-an-shut dead-bang winner of a case for them. However, they did not do that. They _intercepted a 3rd party's communications without a warrant and without consent_. That's a _felony_. In many states, including the one from which I'm typing, and in Federal court, _all parties involved_ must consent to having their communications recorded or the party doing the recording is in serious legal trouble. This is why when calls are made to support, etc., the first first thing said is a notice that 'this call may be recorded'; that means that you've just been notified of the recording and that if you stay on the line you're giving consent. You can sometimes get them to turn off the recording, but other times having the recording on is a condition of the service, so if you say that you don't want to be recorded they say 'have a nice day' and hang up.

The laptop tracking company should never have intercepted 3rd-party communications. They've turned a dead-bang winner of a case into a dead-bang loser. They probably won't get into legal trouble, but they're going to lose money. A lot of money. And whoever it was who was silly enough to hand those pix over to the cops is going to be unemployed. And whichever cop it was who was silly enough to use those pix is going to find himself on foot patrol in the bad part of town.

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Presuming innocence

You have to presume innocence on the part of the person using a stolen item. Until you identify them, you don't know if they paid the market rate for the item, or a suspiciously low price. You don't know if the serial no was scratched off. You don't even know for certain that the item actually was stolen, people have been known to lie about such things, insurance scams and such.

Finding out, afterwards, that the user ought to have known it was stolen doesn't retrospectively justify invading their privacy before the facts were known.

If you presume innocence, then the user of a stolen laptop is entitled to exactly the same privacy rights as anyone else. Stealing a laptop is petty theft, it should be dealt with the same as any other petty theft.

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