No Butts About It: Your Pocket-Dials Aren't Safe

Pocket-dialing someone is akin to leaving your windows uncovered, says Judge Danny Boggs.


Butt-dials are a threat to every cellphone user, but thanks to a ruling by a Kentucky court this week, the risks associated with the accidental act has skyrocketed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Kentucky ruled Wednesday that a pocket-dial is not protected by a right to privacy. That means that whatever is overheard by the recipient of the call is entirely fair game.

The ruling was for a case that involved a 91-minute butt-dial between James Huff, the former chairman of the board of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and Carol Spaw, the assistant to the board’s then-CEO Candace McGraw.

According to court documents, Huff had accidentally called Spaw while at a hotel in Italy. He then proceeded to have a private conversation with another board member about possibly replacing McGraw. What Huff didn’t realize was that Spaw was on the line during the entire conversation, taking notes and recording a portion of the discussion on her iPhone. She is said to have also listened in on a conversation that Huff later had with his wife.

In December 2013, Huff sued Spaw, charging that she had violated a federal wiretap act that makes the intentional interception of electronic or oral communications illegal.

According to the Consumerist, the district court ruled in favor of the assistant, prompting Huff to appeal.

This week, the federal appeals court again ruled for Spaw.

In his decision, Judge Danny Boggs said that people with cellphones should know all about the dangers of butt-dialing and can take steps to prevent such a thing from happening.

If a person “fails to take simple precautions to prevent such exposure,” he or she “does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” he wrote.

To illustrate his point, Boggs compared pocket-dialing to someone accidentally leaving their windows uncovered.

“Under the plain-view doctrine, if a homeowner neglects to cover a window with drapes, he would lose his reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to a viewer looking into the window from outside of his property … the doctrine applies to auditory as well as visual information,” Boggs wrote in his decision.

At least one legal expert has found fault with Boggs’ reasoning.

“Leaving your curtains open is a conscious choice,” Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University in California, told Bloomberg. “You wake up in the morning and decide to open them or not. “Butt dialing might be in a different category of conscious decisions. But the court sees it as sloppiness.”

In the wake of the court’s decision, there’s been discussions online about how cellphone users can protect themselves from impingements on their privacy. Forbes recommends using a call confirmation app like Call Confirm. Another simple method to avoid accidental calls is to put a passcode on your phone when possible.

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