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Pennsylvania case shines spotlight on Internet users' rights to privacy

Published: Monday, Nov. 26 2012 6:47 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — How much privacy can you expect to have when you pilfer Internet service from a neighbor or business? The short answer may be none.

The question has been central to a legal case in Pennsylvania, where a man is accused of downloading child porn through a neighbor's open Wi-Fi access.

According to the Wall Street Journal, police traced the IP address back to the neighbor, then used a program called "Moocherhunter," as well as a directional antenna, to implicate Richard Stanley in the alleged crime.

Stanley pleaded not guilty to possession of child pornography, and his attorneys argued that police should have first obtained a warrant to use the program.

A federal judge ruled that Stanley could not expect any more privacy than the subscriber to the Internet service — whose IP address is considered public.

"Anybody that's downloading child pornography needs to know that the police either know or will know that they're doing that," said Salt Lake City-based defense attorney Greg Skordas, who trains police on Fourth Amendment search and seizure legalities.

Legal experts say it's a challenging legal issue — deciding whether someone has an expectation of privacy if they don't necessarily know they're giving off their location when they log on to someone else's wireless network.

The assistant federal public defender who represents Stanley stands by her position and plans to appeal the ruling.

"When Stanley connected to the other person's router, he didn't reveal his location," Marketa Sims told the Wall Street Journal. "The question here is whether the government needs a warrant to find your location when you haven't broadcast it."

Skordas said the Internet has created scenarios the Founding Fathers couldn't have possibly predicted. In general terms, Internet users should keep their expectations of privacy at a minimum, he said.

"It's a very low or maybe no expectation of privacy when you are using another person's IP address or someone else's Internet to download something that is otherwise illegal," Skordas said.

E-mail: aadams@ksl.com

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