Ahrndt claimed that the search warrant that was used to gather the evidence against him had only been issued based on the deputy's illegal search of his computer files in the first place. He argued that if the deputy had not illegally opened the file on his computer that was available over the unsecured wireless network, there would have been no probable cause to issue the subsequent search warrant.
In analyzing the case, Judge King noted that there was nothing to show that Ahrndt was using or had intended to use iTunes or other file-sharing software to share the files in question, with others. "The invasive action at review here is a remote search of computer data transmitted on an unsecured wireless network," he noted.
King conceded that the deputy did not violate Ahrndt's Fourth Amendment protections by merely looking at the list of files on his computer because the list had had already been pulled up by JH.
However, the deputy's subsequent action in asking JH to open one of the files did violate reasonable expectations of privacy, particularly since Ahrndt had not intended for the contents of his PC to be shared.
King rejected the government's argument that the highly suggestive file names alone were enough reason for probable cause. In his ruling, the judge said it was unlikely the government could have obtained a search warrant based purely on the deputy's recollection of the file names on Ahrndt's collection. In fact, if the deputy had not seen the image, there would have been no probable cause to ask for a search warrant against Ahrndt, he said.
"The mere act of accessing a network does not in itself extinguish privacy expectations, nor does the fact that others may have occasional access to the computer," the judge said, quoting from a previous case involving a similar issue.
"Although Ahrndt's failure to secure his network suggests a lesser subjective expectation of privacy, I could not say he lost all expectation of privacy in the contents of files on his personal computer," King wrote.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.