FBI Collection of Phone Metadata to Catch Sex Offender Ruled Legal

News & Politics

 GALVESTON, Texas (CN) - The FBI lawfully seized hidden iPhone photo data to locate a man accused of uploading child pornography, a federal judge ruled.

The U.S. government charged Donald John Post Sr. with sexual exploitation of children and distribution and possession of child pornography in August 2013. Because of Post's status as a registered sex offender, he also faces penalties for committing a felony offense involving a minor.

In a six-page complaint made public upon Post's arrest, Special Agent Richard Rennison described the investigation that led the FBI to the sex offender's door.

Rennsion said a sexually explicit photo taken with an iPhone 4 and posted on a website "primarily dedicated to the advertisement and distribution of child pornography and the discussion of matters pertinent to incest and pedophilia."

In the explicit photo, its young subject is sleeping on a leather couch.

According to Rennison's affidavit, the FBI investigators were able to glean embedded information, or metadata, from the image, including the make of the photographic device and the GPS coordinates where the photo was taken.

Law-enforcement officials first stopped at the home of Post's neighbors who, as it turned out, did not have a similar leather couch or an iPhone 4, the affidavit states.

Realizing that the GPS coordinates could be off, Rennison said investigators took a closer look at other residents in the area. That their search turned up Post's conviction for aggravated sexual assault of a child.

Post ultimately let Rennison and a fellow task force officer enter his house where they found a similar couch, the affidavit states. Post later admitted to taking the picture, and several others, of a 4-year-old girl in his home.

The sex offender argued in court that the FBI violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures when it obtained the hidden data.

U.S. District Judge Gregg Costa nevertheless declined last week to suppress the evidence.

"Post's attempt to carve out the metadata from his public release of the image finds no support in the text of the Fourth Amendment or the case law applying it," the 10-page order states

Judge Costa found that Post "gave up his right to privacy in that image once he uploaded it to the Internet, and that thing he publicly disclosed contained the GPS coordinates that led agents to his home."

"There is no basis for divvying up the image Post uploaded into portions that are now public and portions in which he retains a privacy interest," Costa concluded.

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