A judge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has ruled that an alleged child pornographer had no expectation of privacy in the files he shared via BitTorrent because those files were accessible to anyone on the popular peer-to-peer file-sharing network.
In 2015, a police detective in Louisiana used a piece of software called Torrential Downpour, which is sold exclusively to law enforcement, to scan the BitTorrent network for child pornography. That's how the cops found Justin Landry, a 36-year-old from Prairieville, who allegedly had videos of children being raped on his BitTorrent shared folder, which allows users to make their own files available for download to others on the internet.
Judge John W. deGravelles, of the United States District Court for the Middle District in Baton Rouge ruled on Thursday that the undercover cop investigating the case didn't need a warrant to search Landry's files, because Landry wasn't protected by the 4th Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure when it came to the videos and pictures he was sharing on BitTorrent.
"Files which an individual voluntarily places in a shared folder on a peer-to-peer network are considered publicly available," the judge wrote in the ruling, which denied Landry's request to suppress the evidence gathered in the search, and was spotted by USA Today investigative reporter Brad Heath.
Landry's lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment via email.
"Files which an individual voluntarily places in a shared folder on a peer-to-peer network are considered publicly available."
This is not the first time a judge has considered files contained in a BitTorrent shared folder as fair game for cops, even without a warrant. In another case in Oklahoma, a judge held that the defendant didn't have "a reasonable expectation of privacy" for the files in his shared folder. The reasoning behind such rulings are that those files are willingly, openly, and publicly shared by their owners. According to longstanding—though sometimes controversial—legal theory, known as the "third party doctrine," Americans have no expectation of privacy for data shared with a third party such as an internet service provider, a cellphone company or, in this case, anyone on the BitTorrent network.
Andrew Crocker, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that courts need to clearly distinguish between accessing private areas of someone's computer and public folders.
"It's important for courts to understand that we all have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of our computers," Crocker told Motherboard in an email. "Of course, when you place files in a public folder, you may have no idea who's accessing them—your neighbor or the police."
Landry is accused of five counts of possessing and distributing child pornography, and faces 20 years in prison for each of those.
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