P2P Networks Don't Have a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on January 27, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed several criminal counts in a child pornography that centered around reasonable expectation of privacy to a peer-to-peer network.

Although the defendant attempted to defend himself pro se, his "several garbled motions" on sovereign citizen theory were not enough to convince the court that he enjoyed a reasonable expectation of privacy. This case marked the first time the Fifth Circuit confronted the issue of whether or not P2P networks are subject to the usual "reasonable expectation" test.

Proactive Porn-Police

Fort Worth Police Department officer Randy Watkins used Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing software to scan for computer users who swapped and shared child pornography. He utilized law enforcement software and ran a comparison of known child pornography media files against the files seen being piped through the P2P network.

Using publicly available ISP tracker software to determine the location of the user, he procured a search warrant for the corresponding residence and seized computer equipment from the defendant's bedroom. The hard drive contained child pornography.

Disruptive Proceedings

The defendant, Chris Weast, did more damage to himself than if he had been appointed counsel. After the court granted his motion to represent himself pro se, he started embarrassing himself by submitting roundabout motions in the variety of the "sovereign citizen" -- the same type of arguments put forth by those who believe that they are exempt from taxes and other federal laws. The jury quickly gave him 30 years.

No Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in P2P Networks

Weast's appeal did not go well for him. One of the legal issues dealt with whether or not Watkins violated Weast's Fourth Amendment Rights because law enforcement did not secure a warrant to search Weast's IP address -- which ultimately led to his arrest and seizure of property. At the District level, the court found Weast's claims unavailing.

The circuit was also not convinced. Applying uniform federal opinion on the matter, the circuit concluded that one does not enjoy a reasonable expectation in those areas which are "voluntarily conveyed to third parties."

Weast unsuccessfully attempted to argue that the IP address was covered under Riley, a SCOTUS case that held that warrantless searches of cell phones are per se violations of the Fourth Amendment. But here, Weast was freely opening up his doors for other consumers and traders of child pornography, thus satisfying the "voluntariness" exemption.

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