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Your butt-dials aren't private, appeals court rules

Technically Incorrect: A federal court says that if you butt-dial someone and the person records it, the information can be used against you.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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Secure your phone if you want to secure your words. James Martin/CNET

It's a recipe for modern tragedy.

As clothes got tighter, phones got bigger. This increased the likelihood that you might make an unknowing call to someone who might like to know exactly what you say to others.

One such instance of a so-called butt-dial was ruled on last week in federal court -- the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, to be exact.

In the case of Bertha Mae Huff and James Harold Huff vs. Carol Spaw (PDF), the latter had received a butt-dial, entirely accidental, from James Huff.

This was more than a little unfortunate. James Huff was, at the time -- in October 2013 -- chairman of Kentucky's Kenton County Airport Board and in Italy for a business conference. Spaw was senior executive assistant to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport CEO Candace McGraw.

In the words of the court, Spaw "believed that she heard James Huff and [Airport Board Vice Chairman Larry] Savage engaged in a discussion to discriminate unlawfully against McGraw and felt that it was her responsibility to record the conversation and report it through appropriate channels."

As Courthouse News reported Wednesday, Spaw allegedly took notes and recorded some of what she heard on her iPhone. She also allegedly recorded a conversation -- still through Huff's butt-dial -- of Huff talking with his wife. She then allegedly passed the recordings to members of the airport board.

Huff sued Spaw, saying that she had recorded private conversations and disseminated them. He lost.

In the ruling, Judge Danny Boggs of the US Court of Appeals likened the events to leaving your drapes wide open and expecting no one to peer into your house.

Boggs said that Huff has simple failed to secure his phone. In Boggs' words: A "person exposes his activities and statements, thereby failing to exhibit an expectation of privacy, if he inadvertently shares his activities and statements through neglectful use of a common telecommunication device."

Huff didn't help himself by admitting to the court that he did, indeed, know of the possibility of butt-dials occurring and had actually made one before.

Boggs explained that therefore Huff might have tried "locking the phone, setting up a passcode, and using one of many downloadable applications that prevent pocket-dials calls."

The court did rule that Bertha Huff had an expectation of privacy. She knew that her husband owned a cell phone, but there was no reason for her to believe that she might be being overheard -- or that her conversation might be recorded.

Please, then, remember to secure your phone before you're out somewhere where the conversation might be one you would not like anyone else to overhear.

It's bad enough someone picking your phone up and going through your pictures because you don't have a passcode set. It's much worse when you're essentially live-broadcasting your true thoughts to those who wouldn't be enamored of them.