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'Butt dials' are not private, U.S. court rules

An executive who mistakenly phoned a business partner with a 'butt dial' had no reasonable expectation of privacy when he started a private conversation about business matters, a U.S. court of appeals ruled this week.

Accidental call exposes executive board intrigue to assistant, who recorded the whole thing

A U.S. court of appeals ruled that a man who butt-dialled his assistant before having a private conversation about office politics effectively waived his expecation of privacy by not locking his phone. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Here's another reason to make sure your phone is locked when you aren't using it: an inadvertent "butt dial" at the worst time could land you in court.

A U.S. court of appeals ruled this week that an executive effectively forfeited his privacy when he inadvertently called his assistant who overheard a conversation about inter-office politics.

James Huff is a former chairman of the board that oversees the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. In 2013, he spoke with Larry Savage, a board vice-chairman, about possibly replacing then-CEO Candace McGraw. 

Before the conversation, Huff tried to call an executive assistant, Carol Spaw, to make a dinner reservation for himself and Savage, but dialled the wrong number. He then put his cellphone in his back pocket, unknowingly butt-dialling Spaw from the outdoor balcony of a hotel room in Bologna, Italy.

Spaw said, "Hello?" when she answered her phone to no response, but when she realized what was going on, she began recording Huff and Savage's conversation with her iPhone. Spaw recorded 91 minutes of material, transcribed what she heard, and later shared what she learned with other members of the airport board.

Huff launched a court challenge arguing that Spaw had violated his privacy by listening to the conversation she overheard instead of hanging up. The U.S. court of appeals in Ohio ruled that Spaw did not, because Huff was the one who pocket-dialled with his phone in the first place — even if he was unaware of it. (PDF link to the ruling here)

"Because James Huff placed the pocket-dial call to Spaw, he exposed his statements to her and therefore failed to exhibit an expectation of privacy with respect to those statements," the court said in its assessment.

During part of the conversation, however, Huff spoke with his wife Bertha about unrelated personal matters. The court ruled that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy while her husband did not, because James Huff was the one who pocket-dialled Spaw, and Bertha was in no way responsible for it, nor could she have known that was a possibility.

The court reasoned that Huff could have used any number of standard security features to avoid pocket-dialling, including "locking the phone, setting up a passcode, and using one of many downloadable applications that prevent pocket-dial calls."

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