EFF Weighs in on Computer Privacy Case in Washington

Washington - Imagine if the law permitted the people who service your computer to share all the personal information on your hard drive with the police, without your consent and without a search warrant. A case on appeal to the Washington State Court of Appeals, State v. Westbrook, threatens to allow just that, turning your friendly neighborhood computer repair technician into a government informer.

Last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the respondent, Robert Westbrook, 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.

When Westbrook dropped off his personal computer at a Gateway Computer store for servicing, a technician saw private files on the computer that he thought might be illegal. Gateway called the police, who searched through personal files on Westbrook's hard drive looking for more evidence -- before ever getting a warrant. The trial court found, and EFF argues in its brief to the appeals court, that this violated Westbrook's Fourth Amendment rights.

"Customers who drop off their computers for servicing reasonably expect that their private data won't be handed over to the police without a warrant," said EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "Allowing computer technicians to snoop on people's private data is like putting surveillance cameras in dressing rooms. 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."

EFF was assisted on the brief by criminal appeals specialist Suzanne Lee Elliott of Seattle, who served as local counsel.


Kurt Opsahl
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation