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Is a single Internet click probable cause for a criminal search?

Following are the key facts in a criminal matter currently on appeal in a federal court. The prosecution argues that the case details are neither controversial nor problematic and that a defendant’s conviction on child pornography charges was justified and legally tight. Conversely, attorneys from an Internet privacy group see fundamental flaws in the case and cite concern that it could lead to damaging outcomes for innocent computer users in the general public.

The bottom line: An individual clicked on a single URL link provided by a child porn website, and then used password information from that link to access unlawful images. Federal investigators were able to gain access to users because the file-sharing site was located – as is not often the case – outside the so-called “dark web.”

The search warrant’s stated reason for accessing the defendant’s computer was his IP address revealed through the one computer click. Prosecutors say that the single site entry gave them sufficient probable cause to proceed with their case. A federal district court agreed with their reasoning.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is now revisiting the matter on appeal, entertaining the argument from privacy advocates that a single click on a link should never be grounds for a search warrant.

Whether the tribunal will ultimately be sympathetic to that argument is not yet known. One judge on the court stated that many factors might induce a user to open a single link. He stressed that authorizing a search based solely on that “could open the doors for unsuspecting people to be subjected to a federal search.”

That is precisely the argument that the Electronic Frontier Foundation legal advocacy team underscored before the court. A staff attorney for the EFF stated that users might easily hit on a link inadvertently, especially if it was forwarded to them by a “bad actor” with malicious intent.

“Even if the user realizes what the link is [after innocently opening it], it’s too late,” she told the court.

We will keep readers duly informed of any material developments that arise in this notable probable cause-linked case.

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