In a federal court case decided earlier this year, United States v. Ahrndt, the court held that an individual had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the use of an unsecured wireless network. The details of this decision are instructive for those still looking at questions of network privacy and security.
This case had its start in 2007, when a woman referred to as JH was using her personal computer at her home in Oregon. She was connected to the internet via her own wireless network, but when her wireless network malfunctioned, her computer automatically picked up another nearby wireless network. JH opened the shared library and found a subfolder called “Dad’s Limewire Tunes.” JH opened “Dad’s Limewire Tunes” and observed files with names that indicated they were child pornography. That shared library was traced back to the defendant, Mr. Ahrndt, a convicted sex offender.
Ahrndt moved to surpress much of the evidence that was found on his computer, arguing that the Fourth Amendment provides a reasonable, subjective expectation of privacy in the contents of a shared iTunes library on a personal computer connected to an unsecured home wireless network. The court held that society recognizes a “lower expectation of privacy in information broadcast via an unsecured wireless network router than in information transmitted through a hardwired network or password-protected network.” The opinion went on to note that “[s]ociety’s recognition of a lower expectation of privacy in unsecured wireless networks, however, does not alone eliminate defendant’s right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. In order to hold that defendant had no right to privacy, it is also necessary to find that society would not recognize as reasonable an expectation of privacy in the contents of a shared iTunes library available for streaming on an unsecured wireless network.” And that is precisely what the Court concluded: “When a person shares files on LimeWire, it is like leaving one’s documents in a box marked ‘free’ on a busy city street.”