In a ruling that could radically change the way IP addresses and geolocation information is used to identify people in court cases, a Florida judge has decided something that many of us have known for a long time: an IP address is not enough information to identify an individual person.
In a court case involving the downloading and piracy of the movie Manny, Judge Ursula Ungaro has refused to approve a subpoena request against an Internet Service Provider, noting that an IP address alone is not enough information to identify who downloaded a pirated movie.
Prior to this ruling, many courts have relied upon IP addresses as reliable proof as to the identity of the person who did the downloading.
However, Judge Ungaro’s logical legal ruling turns this common court practice completely around.
This ruling will make it harder for judges in Florida to grant subpoenas that force Internet Service Providers to disclose the personal details of a user, based only on IP address information.
In addition, this ruling could spread nationwide, changing legal attitudes about how IP address identification is used in other states and in other court cases.
Problems With Using An IP Address To Identify People
There are numerous problems with relying only on an IP address to identify a person in a court case.
The first major problem is that multiple users and devices can share the same IP address, as is the case with most public Wi-Fi spots found around the world.
In addition, once computer or mobile device can be shared by more than one person.
Furthermore, it is very possible that the person using the IP address in question does not even live within the courts jurisdiction.
Use of IP cloaking services like Tor’s anonymity network make the issue even more complicated. A Tor user in the United States could actually be using an IP address with a geolocation somewhere in Europe or Asia.
Judge Ungaro intelligently and insightfully notes in her opinion:
There is nothing linking the IP address location to the identity of the person actually downloading and viewing the copyrighted material and nothing establishing that the person actually lives in this district.
Even if this IP address is located within a residence, geolocation software cannot identify who have access to that residence’s computer and who would actually be using it to infringe Plaintiff’s copyright.
In short, Plaintiff has not established good cause for the Court to reasonably rely on Plaintiff’s usage of geolocation software to establish the identity and residence of the Defendant.
This decision is likely to have far-reaching legal consequences for “John Doe” defendants in other types of cases that involve the use of IP addresses to pinpoint a person’s actual identity.
You can read more of Judge Ursula Ungaro’s decision here.