Secret Security System On Some Laptops Could Track You


UPDATED: Tuesday May 5, 2009 7:12 AM

Susan Jeffrey needed a computer, so she decided to buy a used laptop.

She hooked up her Webcam and started chatting online with a childhood sweetheart in Boston.  After a few weeks of sending messages and what she called private pictures to him, police showed up at her Springfield home.

"They shook a little paper and they said, 'We have a warrant for your arrest,'" Jeffrey said.  "I said, 'What?'"

It turned out that the laptop Jeffrey bought was stolen, 10TV's Andy Hirsch reported.

The computer was equipped with Absolute Software's Computrance LoJack for Laptops.  The company told 10TV News that each time Jeffrey went online that the computer would send a signal from her home to a monitoring center in Vancouver, B.C., allowing the company's theft recovery team to track it down.

When police arrived, Jeffrey noticed officers holding a picture of her friend from Boston.  She recognized the picture from one of their Web chats.

"I was totally stunned," Jeffrey said.  "I said, 'How did you get that?'"

Absolute Software's LoJack technology goes beyond tracking.  It allows the company to tap into a computer and access files, pictures and essentially anything on the laptop.

"I was just totally stunned," Jeffrey said.  "I could barely talk.  I just couldn't believe that you could sit in America and be tapped into your own (computer), in the privacy of your own living room."

Ohio State University professor Peter Swire is a privacy expert.  He compared Absolute's methods to a wiretap.

"Absolute Software is running a big legal risk if it keeps wiretapping computers after it leaves the original owner," Swire said.

Used laptops are a hot commodity.  Hirsch said that a quick search on eBay showed thousands of them for sale.  So how would you know if you're being spied on?

"Honestly, I don't know," said Ben Martin, a hardware design engineer.  He said that finding LoJack can be tough because it is not installed on the hard drive where most programs are kept.

Even if it is found, Martin said that there is no guarantee a person can get rid of it.

"It would kind of defeat the purpose if they made it easy to get rid of," Martin said.

Absolute's legal team argues federal laws allow the company to offer its services, and consider someone in Jeffrey's position a "computer trespasser."  She filed a civil suit against the software company, maintaining that the laws don't apply because she did not know the computer was stolen.

Jeffrey's attorney insists only law enforcement agencies have the power to do what Absolute does.

10TV News called the Ohio Attorney General's office, the U.S. Department of Justice, sent e-mails to federal investigators and sifted through the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to find out who was right.  No one would give an opinion, especially with the pending civil suit, Hirsch reported.

Ultimately, the charge of receiving stolen property against Jeffrey was dropped, but she claims that Absolute violated her privacy rights, the rights of her friend in Boston or anyone else she communicated with while using the laptop.

"I feel totally invaded," Jeffrey said.  "Every American is in jeopardy of having this happen to them.  If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody."

Absolute Software could not specifically comment on Jeffrey's case.

Stay with 10TV News and 10TV.com for additional information.