Judge Questions IP as Evidence in Raunchy Case

Dennis Faas's picture

Until recently, courts of law have had the power to force Internet Service Providers to hand over customer details based on IP (Internet Protocol) address information, which is used to identify a user connected to the Internet. But now one judge has refused to make such an order, questioning the accuracy of the method.

An IP is a number that identifies a particular device such as a computer or a router connected to a network. In theory, there is a straight correlation between one device and one IP address. In practice, though, a single IP address does not necessarily mean one computer or one specific user connected to the Internet.

Hijacked and Dynamic IP Address Difficult to Discern

For example, several computers could use one router and thus use one IP address; in some cases a hacker could "hijack" this Internet connection of a wireless router without the owner's knowledge or permission and, in doing so, use its IP address.

In such a case, it would be difficult to discern exactly who was connected to the IP address, if a crime was committed.

Another example issue is that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) don't always assign permanent IP addresses to users, but rather, they use what is called dynamic IP addresses, which are leased to users over a specific time period, and only when a user has made a connection to the Internet.

In other words: because dynamic IP addresses change so often, it would be incredibly difficult to pinpoint exactly who used what IP, unless courts had access to such a detailed log.

IP Address Usually Enough to Bring Action

In the past, this hasn't stopped legal cases being brought on the basis of an IP address, which is often the only information available to an investigator.

A common example used in court cases is when the copy right holder for music or movies (example: Warner Bothers) is able to trace an IP address which allegedly and illegally shared copyrighted files online. The IP address can usually be traced to a specific Internet provider through public records.

In most cases, the relevant lawyers will either directly request an ISP hand over customer details or ask a court to order the ISP to do so. This has led to many complaints of mistaken identity.

Judge Warns Innocents Could Be Under Pressure

In a recent court case in Illinois, Judge Harold Baker rejected such a request from a Canadian producer of legal adult material.

Baker noted a previous case involving the online distribution of illegal child smut (completely unconnected to the current case) in which such an IP address "identification" proved false. Eventually, the person accused as the offender was proven innocent. (Source: arstechnica.com)

According to Baker, there's too great a chance that not only could such a mistake be made in this case, but that the computer users named in the process might be so embarrassed by the connection that they make a false confession rather than risk facing a trial. (Source: archive.org)

Baker therefore rejected the application for identification, saying that he's unwilling to proceed with the case until at least one individual suspect is specifically named by the would-be plaintiffs, and even then, the named individual would have to reside under the jurisdiction of his court.

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