No Privacy For Moochers

If you squat on your neighbor’s wi-fi you probably shouldn’t expect to have a right of privacy in your online activities. And while that may seem intuitively obvious to most of us, it recently came as a surprise to a criminal defendant in a federal court in Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania police were looking for a man suspected of downloading child pornography. They traced downloads to an IP address of a Comcast subscriber – but soon discovered that the real bad guy was actually mooching Internet access off the subscriber’s unsecured wireless router.

They used mobile-tracking software called “Moocherhunter” to locate unauthorized users of the wireless modem and identified a neighbor, Richard Stanley, as the true culprit.

With that, the authorities got a warrant to search Stanley’s home. Stanley tried to suppress the evidence by arguing that police should have gotten a warrant to use “Moocherhunter” in the first place.

The court rejected that argument, ruling that Stanley could expect no more privacy than the subscriber. An internet subscriber does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his IP address or any information he provides to his service provider to connect to the Internet. Likewise, anyone using another person’s wi-fi to get online can’t have an expectation of privacy in that connection.

In its decision, the court cited a 1979 Supreme Court case that held that police didn’t need a warrant to use a device that captured telephone numbers dialed by a suspect. A phone user understands that, by dialing a number, he asks the phone company to connect him. And so, he voluntarily gives the information to a third party.

Likewise, Stanley voluntarily exposed his wireless signal to a third party (his neighbor) and assumed the risk that went along with it (that his neighbor would disclose it to the police).

So what’s the real take-away for the average Joe? Password-protect your wi-fi. And if you live next door to someone as creepy as Richard Stanley, consider moving.