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Police Blotter: Can Circuit City techs legally peruse files?

After retailer allegedly discovers contraband on man's PC, he asks judges to say results of search can't be used as evidence.

Police Blotter is a weekly report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: Pennsylvania man accused of possessing illegal images objects to Circuit City technician perusing his video files and then alerting police.

When: Superior Court of Pennsylvania rules on December 5.

Outcome: Evidence of illegal images allegedly discovered by technician can be used in court.

What happened, according to court documents:
On October 15, 2004, Kenneth Sodomsky brought his computer to a Circuit City store in Wyomissing, Pa., and asked store technicians to install a DVD burner.

Circuit City told Sodomsky that the upgrade would be finished in about an hour. After installing the DVD burner, the technicians tested the drive's new software by searching the computer's hard drive for video files to play back. (Amusingly, the court refers to "codecs"--video compression and decompression software--as "code X.")

When searching the Windows XP computer for some sample video files, a technician named Stephen Richert allegedly spotted files that "appeared to be pornographic in nature" based on their names. Richert clicked on one that had listed a male name and an age of 13 or 14 and found a video he believed to contain child pornography.

Then the usual series of events happened: Richert called Wyomissing police, who promptly showed up, seized the computer, and, after Sodomsky returned to pick it up, seized its owner as well.

What makes this case relevant to Police Blotter is the question of what privacy rights govern Sodomsky's computer when he drops it off for an upgrade. If he had an expectation of privacy, then the allegedly incriminating files could be suppressed. If not, they could be used as evidence against him.

The trial court granted Sodomsky's request to suppress the information, but prosecutors appealed.

Making this case tricky for the appeals court is that there's not exactly a clear precedent, leaving the judges to reason through analogy. Is this a no-reasonable-expectation-of-privacy situation such as when a defendant hands illegal drugs to a third party? Or is it closer to tenants or bank customers, who retain some privacy rights under state or federal constitutions?

In the case of Sodomsky, the appeals court noted that he gave Circuit City technicians access to the hard drive and consented to the installation of a DVD drive. The court also noted that the technicians weren't randomly perusing the drive for contraband, but instead were testing its functioning in a "commercially accepted manner."

The appeals court reversed the previous order, allowed the evidence to be introduced, and sent the case back to the trial judge for additional proceedings.

Excerpts from appeals court's opinion:
Appellee implies that the DVD drive should have been tested by inserting and playing a DVD. Nevertheless, as noted, Appellee did not ask how the burner would be tested nor did he place any restrictions regarding the manner of that procedure. As Mr. Richert's testimony indicated, the playing of videos already in the computer was a manner of ensuring that the burner was functioning properly. Once the search for videos was initiated, the list of appellee's videos appeared automatically on the computer screen. The employee testing the burner was free to select any video for testing purposes, as appellee had not restricted access to any files. Therefore, Mr. Richert did not engage in a fishing expedition in this case...

The final factor we utilize is the volitional nature of appellee's actions. In this case, Appellee removed the computer from his home, took the computer to Circuit City, and left it there without either removing the videos containing child pornography or changing the titles of the videos so that they did not appear to have illegal content...Appellee was aware of the child pornography and could have elected to leave the store with the computer rather than risk discovery of the pornographic files.

This scenario also stands in contrast with the landlord case relied upon by the trial court. Although landlords routinely retain the right to inspect their premises upon notice, people still retain a privacy expectation in their home despite its status as rental property. Here, however, we find that under the facts and circumstances presented, appellee knowingly exposed to the public, the Circuit City employees, the contents of his video files. It is clear that Circuit City employees were members of the public; hence, if appellee knowingly exposed the contents of his video files to them, as members of the public, he no longer retained an expectation of privacy in those videos nor could he expect that they would not be distributed to other people, including police.

Our result in this case is consistent with the weight of authority in this area. If a person is aware of, or freely grants to a third party, potential access to his computer contents, he has knowingly exposed the contents of his computer to the public and has lost any reasonable expectation of privacy in those contents...

We also conclude that the incriminating nature of the video files was immediately apparent. Appellee suggests that it was unclear whether the videos depicted child pornography because police could not ascertain the age of the naked male, whose face was not revealed, from the portion of the video that they viewed. We disagree....Finally, police had the lawful right to access the videos because, as analyzed extensively above, appellant had abandoned any reasonable expectation of privacy in them.