EFF Files Amicus in Computer Privacy Case

Gretchen Gallen
SAN FRANCISCO – In support of a computer owner whose hard drive contents were handed over to authorities by a Gateway technician during a routine maintenance job, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Robert Westbrook crying foul over a violation of constitutionally protected privacy rights.

In October 2003, Westbrook sent his computer to Gateway for servicing, during which a technician discovered images of child pornography in some of his files. Gateway called the police and the officer who arrived on the scene examined the hard drive prior to obtaining a warrant. Before Westbrook could blink, he found himself facing charges of child porn possession.

Earlier this year, a trial court dismissed the case and suppressed all evidence obtained from the warrantless search of Westbrook’s computer, although the case is being appealed in the Washington state Court of Appeals and the EFF is urging the court not to overturn that decision.

EFF is arguing that citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of their computers, and that their Fourth Amendment rights don't disappear when a computer is delivered to a technician for servicing.

“Allowing computer technicians to snoop on people's private data is like putting surveillance cameras in dressing rooms,” EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl said. “The violation of so many people's privacy far outweighs any benefits that might be gained. It would mean you couldn't use a personal computer for personal business."

In a separate case, a court of appeals held that a woman had an objectively reasonable expectation to privacy when it comes to the contents of her purse, which, similar to a hard drive, serves as a repository for personal, private effects.

“A personal computer may contain a world of very private and potentially embarrassing information: a diary, an archive of personal and business emails, tax returns and an almost infinite range of other materials,” the amicus stated. “It even contains much more information than you didn’t even know existed, such as web surfing records indicating every website you visited and every search engine query you entered for the past 12 months.”