The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled on a case involving a university network admin’s search of a student’s personal computer. Inside Higher Ed covers the story.
University of Wisconsin student Jerome Heckenkamp pled guilty to federal charges arising from unauthorized access to Qualcomm’s private network. The Court found that the FBI did not need a warrant to search the student’s computer in this case. On the other hand, it held that in general students have a reasonable expectation of privacy on their personal computers, which happened to be outweighed in this case.
Higher ed media are calling this a win for privacy [Chronicle of Higher Ed]. Inside Higher Ed summarizes:
It was legitimate for the university to act as it did, the judges found, because it was acting out of concern about its own e-mail network, not to help with the law enforcement investigation set off by Qualcomm, and it acted in ways that were consistent with the university’s policies that Heckenkamp had agreed to follow.
IANAL, but I have to disagree with the conclusion that the Court was legitimizing the university’s conduct. Instead, the question was whether the FBI’s use of the network admin’s findings was legitimate. In the absence of a warrant, the FBI asserted — and was granted — a “special needs exception” to the warrant requirement.
The Court found that “requiring a warrant to investigate potential misuse of the university’s computer network would disrupt the operation of the university and the network that it relies upon in order to function.” [p. 11 of the decision] I’m not sure I buy that either, but the point is that, within this case, the university would be off the hook for the violation of privacy even if the FBI couldn’t use the results of that violation to prosecute the student.
And it only stands to reason that a university network admin, who is not a law enforcement officer, should not be held to the same 4th-Amendment standards as the FBI. So I would hesitate to draw campus network policy conclusions based on this decision — aside from that it’s probably safe to cooperate with the FBI.