The Lost Flashdrive and Presumed Consent

“Lose a flashdrive here? Call the Arboretum if you’re one of the visitors in this photo, or phone these guys if they are friends of yours. A flashdrive packed with photos and software has been in our lost-N-found for at least a month — Store manager Lynnea suggested we post a photo from the drive and see if someone cla…ims it. Describe the drive and its contents accurately & provide your postal — we’ll happily return it.”

The Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior Arizona recently posted this notice on its Facebook page, along with one of the photographs a staff member took off the lost flashdrive. Obviously the material on the drive is private; just as obviously, the flashdrive is lost. Is the Arboretum within reasonable ethical boundaries to examine and publicize private information without the permission of the flashdrive’s owner to help the owner recover his lost property?

The short answer is yes, with some reservations. The principle involved is presumed consent: it is  reasonable for the Arboretum staff to presume that the owner of the drive would consent to a limited search of his flashdrive in order to get his property back. The equivalent situation would be checking the contents of a lost wallet to find the identity of the wallet’s owner. Presumed consent occurs in many settings, including the presumed consent of a parent for a physician to render emergency medical care to a child, and the presumed consent of an attorney’s client for the attorney to divulge confidences to police that will assist them in preventing harm to the client.

Consent to publish a personal photo on the Internet, however, requires a little more presuming, which is why it causes me some ethical twinges. The photo that the Arboretum posted to its Facebook page looks innocuous enough: two smiling young men sitting on a hillside. Still, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination, or the reading of many thrillers, to conceive scenarios in which the widespread distribution of the photograph causes problems for the people in it. Maybe one of the young men is in the witness protection program. Maybe the photograph is proof of a suspected illicit relationship, or another lie. A gigantic leap is required to bridge the gap between presuming consent to merely examine private material, and presuming consent to broadcast it to the world.

I still think the Boyce Thompson Arboretum staff did the right thing. But if one of those guys in the picture ends up on a meat hook, they’re going to feel terrible.

3 thoughts on “The Lost Flashdrive and Presumed Consent

  1. I have similar misgivings. If the drive didn’t appear to be extremely important, noting a flashdrive was lost may have been sufficient. They don’t post lost jackets online, do they?

    If the cursory look suggested the flashdrive was of high importance (like a wallet), then I’m willing to give some ethical leeway. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what information would be of high importance that wouldn’t pinpoint the individuals better than a picture.

  2. Well, Jack, if nothing else, you’ve convinced me to add a small text file in the root of all my flash drives with my name and contact information.

    The fact is that I *would* want someone who finds one to do the equivalent of looking for an ID in a wallet, and it seems I ought to make the job easier–to the finder’s and my benefit.

    –Dwayne

  3. Dear Jack: Your analogy of the lost wallet pretty well sums it up, I think. By merely publishing a picture of two men on a hillside, they presented the simplest and most harmlessly identifying information that they could to attract the owner’s attention. There are all sorts of hair-raising plots one could think of to imagine harm coming of this. Few, however, apply beyond the confines of a Matt Damon movie! I’d say they did the right thing. Steve

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