Warrantless Searches

The Supreme Court’s recent finding that warrantless cell phone searches are unconstitutional is already generating some pretty interesting arguments in ongoing cases. The government obviously wishes to mitigate the “damage” done by this decision by still doggedly pursuing data through warrantless methods.

In this particular case, the government is arguing that it has every right to access cell site location information (CSLI) without a warrant, claiming that the Riley decision solely pertains to the contents of cell phones. Obtaining CSLI without a warrant is still Constitutionally-dubious, however. One state court and a federal court have held that this information should only be obtained with a warrant. In the prior case, it was found that the state’s Constitution provided more protection than the US Constitution and in the latter, the finding was very narrowly tailoredto the case at hand, making it very difficult to apply to others cases, even under the same jurisdiction.

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Thanks to spyware, an FBI dad got a gift-wrapped child porn case.

Like any dad, Joseph Auther was worried about what his son might get up to while exploring the wilds of the World Wide Web. So when his 7th grade son got a school-provided laptop from Whispering Palms School in Saipan in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, Auther decided to install a monitoring program on it. He went with a spyware program called eBlaster from SpectorSoft, a company based in Vero Beach, Florida. Unbeknownst to his son, the program captured his website visits, his keystrokes, and every email, chat, and instant message he sent and received. This was all delivered up to his dad in emails, while giving the monitored person no hint that it was doing so.

Auther has a special appreciation for the benefits of surveillance. He’s an FBI special agent. In April, he discovered he was being transferred to the FBI office in Denver. At the end of the school year, Auther let Whispering Palms principal Thomas Weindl know that his family was moving and that they would be returning the school’s laptop. Weindl, 67, was actually a friend of the Auther family; when he got married earlier that year, Auther’s wife gave a reading at the ceremony. Auther told Weindl that he would return the laptop after he removed all of his son’s files, programs, and games.

Auther first took the laptop to his FBI office and asked his colleagues how to wipe it clean. Apparently they don’t have many cyber experts in the Mariana Islands, because they were unsuccessful. So Auther had to instead take it to a computer repair shop, which cleaned out the old files and allegedly re-imaged the hard drive to return it to its original settings. Auther didn’t tell the shop about eBlaster being on the computer — perhaps feeling a little Big Parent shame — but assumed that it would be wiped along with everything else. He then returned the computer to Weindl….

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The information subpoenaed does not need to be relevant to a crime; in fact, it may be used to dissipate any suspicion of a crime.

Judge William Fletcher, in a Ninth Circuit decision ordering utilities companies to turn over customer records even without a warrant. The case, U.S. v. Golden Valley Electric Association, deals with Alaskans suspected of growing marijuana indoors.