A substitute teacher unwittingly bought a stolen laptop, leading her sex chats to be spied on by a recovery service. She's now suing those involved.
Case will reportedly revolve around whether teacher was honest or naughty

We've heard about rental companies spying on customers with webcams, technicians installing spying malware, and even schools spying on students at home with webcams.  But a new case in the U.S. District Court for Southern Ohio has taken things to a whole new level.

The case is full of confusing twists and turns and risque material.  

It began in April 2008 when Dusty Ray Powell, a Clark County School District vocational student had his school-issued laptop stolen at a local public library.  Mr. Powell filed a police report.  Soon after, a ninth grade student at Kiefer Alternative School, Christopher Lebaroff, claims to have purchased the laptop from an unidentified individual for $40 USD at a bus station.  

Mr. Lebaroff was a student in the class of Susan Clements-Jeffrey, a long-time substitute teacher (now 52 years old) at the alternative high school.  He heard his teacher was shopping for laptops and offered her the non-working laptop for $60 USD.

Thinking it was a great deal, ostensibly, Ms. Clements-Jeffrey purchased the laptop and had a fellow teacher install a new operating system and necessary software.  At home, she put the computer to a rather personal use.  Recently widowed, Ms. Clements-Jeffrey had "renewed a high school romance with Plaintiff Carlton "Butch" Smith, who lived in Boston."

"Butch" and his new lover reported regularly stripping down and exchanging sexually explicit emails, instant messages, and webcam sessions to help the distance relationship work.

But unbeknownst to them, they were not the only ones watching the sexually heated exchanges.  The school district had equipped its laptops with Absolute Software's "LoJack for Laptops", a hardware and software combination that looked to recover laptops even if their hard drives were wiped clean.

When Absolute Software switched on the device, it communicated the computer's new IP address to the company, allowing company representatives to track it.  It also did much more.  It downloaded spyware that allowed the company to take screenshots of the active computer and intercept email and other messages sent from it.

The company "theft recovery officer", Kyle Magnus, took explicit screenshots of Ms. Clements-Jeffrey.  States court documents [PDF]:

In those screen-shots Clements-Jeffrey is not wearing any clothes and Smith is naked from the waist up.  In one shot, Clements-Jeffrey has her legs spread wide apart.

Mr. Magnus then handed those pictures over to two local police officers -- Geoffrey Ashworth and Noel Lopez -- who reportedly traveled to Ms. Clements-Jeffrey's residence on June 25, 2008 to arrest her for receiving stolen property.  The officers handcuffed her, laughed at her, and called her "stupid" allegedly, for claiming not to realize the computer was stolen.  They also called her chats, which they prominently displayed pictures of, "disgusting".

Ms. Clements-Jeffrey was briefly charged with receiving stolen property, but the charges were dismissed on July 7, 2008.

The teacher then filed suit against the City of Springfield, Absolute Software, the officers involved, and Kyle Magnus.  Her lawyers argued that obtaining the explicit images without her permission caused emotional harm, violated her Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, and violated several other laws (the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Stored Communications Act).

The presiding judge, U.S. District Court Judge Walter H. Rice struck down [PDF] a request by the defendants and allowed the case to precede to trial this week.  While he disagreed with the claims of Fourth Amendment violations, he said that the Electronic Communications Privacy and Stored Communications Acts were likely violated by the behavior of the company.

The judge ruled that the case could proceed as Ms. Clements-Jeffrey did not have reason to believe the computer was stolen as she was unaware of her student's criminal history and did not realize obscured serial numbers were a possible sign of theft.  The judge ruled that she had reasonable cause to believe the $60 offer was reasonable, given that the machine was 2 years old and non-working when she obtained it.

This story is certainly a wild one, and we'll be eager to hear how it turns out.  The decision could ultimately set a precedent -- at least in Ohio -- as to how to deal with cases of corporate and government web-cam spying.

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