The vast increase in the use of wireless data networks has led to new legal issues regarding network users’ right to privacy. A recent opinion issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon indicates that, under some circumstances, individuals on an unsecured wireless network have a reasonable expectation of privacy entitling them to Fourth Amendment protection. As a result, police officers must obtain a warrant prior to accessing files on that network.
In United States v. Ahrndt, defendant John Henry Ahrndt moved to suppress evidence that a police officer obtained by accessing Ahrndt’s wireless home network and opening files without a search warrant.
In February 2007, one of Ahrndt’s neighbors connected to Ahrndt’s unsecured wireless internet network. When she opened her iTunes program, she was able to see “shared” files from Ahrndt’s iTunes and LimeWire accounts, and saw a number of titles indicative of child pornography.
The neighbor did not open any of the files, but called the police to report what she saw. A deputy came to her house and she showed him the file names as she had seen them. The deputy asked her to open one of the files. When she did, it opened an image of child pornography.
The deputy questioned the neighbor about whom the unsecured wireless network might belong to. She indicated that the network had been available since she moved into the building, and at the time Ahrndt’s home was the only other one that was occupied. The police ran the license plate of a car parked outside of the home and identified it as belonging to Ahrndt, a convicted sex offender.
Using a general description of what the neighbor and deputy recalled seeing in the list of file names, the police applied for and received a search warrant to access the wireless network again in order to get an IP address. The police then served a summons on the Internet provider. The provider disclosed that Ahrndt was the subscriber in question.
Using that information, the police obtained a search warrant for Ahrndt’s home. They ran a forensic search of his computer and identified images of child pornography in various folders. The forensic report did not mention either iTunes or LimeWire.
In considering the motion to suppress the evidence obtained through the initial warrantless search, the court concluded that it would have been appropriate for the deputy to view the titles of the files without a warrant, since a private party (the neighbor) had already viewed those files and told the police about them. However, the court concluded that it was a violation of Ahrndt’s Fourth Amendment rights for the police to instruct the neighbor to open the file, which she had not previously done. The opened image was no longer within the purview of private search, but a government search.
The court also found that Ahrndt’s privacy expectations were not eliminated by accessing an unsecured wireless network. There was no evidence that Ahrndt had intentionally enabled sharing for those files; rather, the default setting of the LimeWire program enabled sharing. It was Ahrndt’s reasonable belief that those files were contained only on his hard drive, and not shared on a public network. The court said that “[i]n short, the government does not dispute a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the files on his home personal computer.”
The court concluded that, lacking specific file names and a description of images, a magistrate would not have found probable cause to issue a search warrant. The only evidence that the police viewed lawfully was the file names, which the neighbor and deputy could not remember with specificity. Since the “partial recollections and characterizations” were too general to support a warrant, all related evidence from the unlawful search must be suppressed.
The court came to the right conclusion on this one. Our reliance on the Internet has become such that what is on our computers is as personal and private as the inside of our homes. The government is no more entitled to search our computer without probable cause than to search our homes. This case does not represent a free pass to intentionally share information on wireless networks and then assert Fourth Amendment rights when the government comes knocking. Rather, it is only that information to which an user has a reasonable expectation of privacy—such as files that he is not aware are accessible to others—that is protected against the government’s unlawful search and seizure.
It’s easy to see how this has implications for potential white-collar cases: the government might try to use financial information unintentionally made available to a neighbor through an unsecured network as a basis to initiate a financial fraud investigation. We hope that the courts will rely on this case and suppress any evidence obtained as a result of this type of unlawful search.