Locating Unauthorized Internet Users Without a Warrant

Wednesday, November 28, 2012, by Cara Richards

A federal court in Pittsburgh has ruled that the government can track internet users to their location without a search warrant. The court reasoned, in United States v. Stanley, that internet users have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their IP address nor can they expect privacy protection for the information they provide to their Internet service providers. Judge Joy Conti of the Western District of Pennsylvania found that the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy because in connecting to the unauthorized wireless network he was voluntarily sending a signal to a third party.

After tracking a child pornography suspect to an IP address of a Comcast subscriber, Pennsylvania State Police discovered that the suspect was actually a neighbor mooching off of an unsecured wireless network in a home across the street.  After receiving permission from the actual Comcast internet subscriber, police used software, called Moocherhunter, and an antenna to identify the apartment containing the suspect’s computer and then obtained a search warrant to search the apartment. The Moocherhunter program allowed the police to measure the distance between the wireless router and the devices connected to it, leading the police to the suspect. The suspect was then indicted in November 2011 for possession of child pornography. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence against him on the grounds that the police efforts constituted a warrantless search. The defendant argued that Moocherhunter is a technology that is not in general public use and was used to discover that a computer was located inside of his home, constituting a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

In deciding the case the district court addressed the Fourth Amendment question: Does tracing the location of a user of an unsecured wireless network constitute a Fourth Amendment search? The court was the first to tackle this issue. In the opinion, Judge Conti cited a Supreme Court case that held that the police did not need a search warrant for a device that recorded the telephone numbers dialed by a criminal suspect because the suspect had no expectation of privacy in the numbers he dialed. He voluntarily provided the information to a third party, the telephone company. Professor Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University, suggested that a case involving a wireless internet user may be different though because wireless internet users may not know that they are conveying information to third parties. Nevertheless, Judge Conti found that the wireless internet user did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy because in connecting to the unauthorized wireless network he was voluntarily sending a signal to a third party.