A Pennsylvania judge recently affirmed that a person connecting to another’s unsecured wifi does not have an expectation of privacy in that wireless connection. The defendant, who was suspected of downloading child pornography, challenged the police’s use of a tracking tool called “Moocherhunter,” which identifies the geo-location of hackers and individuals who “mooch” on the wireless connections of others.
The defendant lived across the street from the owner of the wireless router, connected to that wireless router, and downloaded child pornography. With proper warrants, the police searched the computers belonging to the owner of the wireless router, and discovered that the owner was not the responsible party. Using “Moocherhuner,” the police were able to find the defendant, who was in possession of child pornography. The defendant objected to the police’s use of Moocherhunter on the grounds that it was an unreasonable search and seizure, as it was conducted without a warrant. However, the judge ruled that there was no search under 4th amendment law because the defendant voluntarily shared information with a third party (the owner of the wireless router), and that he had no expectation of privacy in signals sent from his computer to the wireless router.
While the issue of expectation of privacy may seem new in the context of wireless routers, the concept has strong roots in criminal law and the 4th amendment law. The 4th Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure, and many cases have dealt with what constitutes a “search” and what kind of searches are “unreasonable.” At bottom, an action by the police is not a “search” for 4th Amendment purposes when the person searched (the accused) has no reasonable expectation of privacy in that information or the means by which the information was transmitted. Generally, a person has no expectation of privacy in information that he or she gives to a third party—instead, they assume the risk that the third party may share that information with others.
It is always a good idea to take care with what information people transmit through the Internet, but especially so in light of the recent confirmation of this principle—that you have no expectation of privacy in information shared over a wireless connection. Remember, nothing is truly private.
For owners of wireless routers, it may be wise to use a strong password to secure those routers. While it is still possible for sophisticated hackers to hack into the router, this may prevent others people from accessing your wireless, whether it is for something innocuous, like streaming Netflix, or something illegal, like downloading child pornography.
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