Yet Another Reason to Secure Your Wi-Fi Network: Child Porn Charges

By now we all know that privacy and the internet mix just about as well as water and BP.  Previously we have blogged about privacy concerns and technology, specifically how police need a warrant to search e-mails.  But did you know that you could get accused for internet activity that you didn’t even do, or weren’t even aware of?

That’s exactly what happened in a recent New York case regarding unsecured wi-fi internet connections and privacy rights.

In Buffalo, New York, police raided the house of a man because they suspected he was downloading child pornography.  After viewing the man’s wi-fi internet activity, they believed that he might be responsible for the downloads, which were traceable to the user screen name “Doldrum”.

It turns out he wasn’t “Doldrum” at all- after further investigation, the police discovered that Doldrum was actually a neighbor who had been mooching download time off of the man’s unsecured wireless wi-fi.  In this case, the man was found to be innocent.  However, the police stated that the unfortunate situation might have been avoided if he had protected his internet connection with a password (which of course he didn’t).

On a much broader note, the Buffalo case does raise some very relevant issues regarding wi-fi usage and citizen’s privacy rights.  That is, do the police have the right to obtain information from unsecured wi-fi internet activities?  If you are using a neighbor’s unsecured internet connection (which is completely commonplace nowadays), who is responsible for activities such as illegal downloads?  As this case illustrates, it can initially be difficult to tell who is responsible for what when it comes to openly shared and unsecured wireless wi-fi connections.

Just a quick refresher on our privacy rights:  according to the U.S. Constitution, we all have the 4th Amendment right to be free from illegal searches in places and things in which we have a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.  If a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, then police must first obtain a warrant to conduct a search.

So the question now becomes, when using someone else’s unsecured wi-fi connection, do we have a reasonable expectation of privacy?

Regarding the use of unsecured wi-fi internet connections, courts have held that we have little to no expectation of privacy.  What?  Is that surprising?  In a 2010 Oregon case, U.S. vs. Ahrndt, defendant John Henry Ahrndt was also found guilty for downloading child pornography using his neighbor’s unsecured network  (case summary here; click here for a nice analysis of the case).  Ahrndt unsuccessfully tried to argue that his privacy rights were violated when the police rummaged through his internet activity.

The court in Ahrndt compared unsecured wi-fi connections to cell phone conversations.  There the court stated that cell phone users have almost no reasonable expectation of privacy because cell phone calls can easily be intercepted.

Similarly, an even lesser degree of privacy expectation exists for wi-fi connections not secured by a password.  Not only are unsecured wireless wi-fi networks easily intercepted, they seem to almost invite outside users to use the network.  It’s as if the words “unsecured network” translate into, “go ahead, feel free to use me”.

The court in the Ahrndt case also commented on other data such as shared iTunes files (Ahrndt had saved the files using iTunes).  Using some pretty colorful descriptions, the court stated that “when a person shares files on iTunes over an unsecured wireless network, it is like leaving one’s documents in a box marked `take a look’”.  So, we don’t really have a reasonable expectation of privacy in using any unsecured wi-fi, and especially not in shared files.  Duh.

Now, some might argue that the average person would reasonably expect that their internet activity is private.  It has been pointed out that securing your wi-fi with a password is not exactly all that easy.  Although wireless routers come with instructions on how to password-secure your connection, for some reason many people can’t actually figure out those instructions.  Many are not even aware that you can protect your wi-fi with a password.

That’s a compelling argument, but I don’t think it would survive as a defense in court if the police come at you with evidence of illegal internet activity.  And that’s exactly what happened in both the Buffalo case and the Ahrndt case.  Neither of the responsible culprits had any privacy expectations when they downloaded child pornography using another person’s unsecured connection- and that’s why the police were able to nab them.

So the moral of the story is- well, a few points:

1)      Please do password-protect your wireless wi-fi.  While you might not be doing dirt on your connection, one of your neighbors or a person sitting in a car near your home might be- and you just might get caught up in the blindfolded, long-armed sweep of Lady Justice as she does her thing.

2)      Stop committing heinous internet crimes (I’m talking to your neighbor, not you of course).

3)      To the wireless router providers out there like Comcast, etc., please do something about your password instructions that are printed in a manual.  Very few people actually read instruction manuals anymore, because people don’t read anymore (Steve Jobs would agree with that).  I’ll bet that if you simply provide a video walkthrough of how to password-protect, and then broadcast it on any one of your 80,000 T.V. channels or post it on YouTube, everyone would know how to do it.

Until next time, let’s all remember: e-mail privacy rights > unsecured wireless wi-fi privacy rights (unless you are sending illegal e-mails using your neighbor’s wi-fi).

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