In general, the Fourth Amendment prohibits a warrantless search of a person’s home or possessions. Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 181 (1990); U.S.C.A Const. Amend. 4. One commonly recognized exception to the warrant requirement is a search conducted pursuant to the voluntary consent of a person with authority over the property. United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 165-66 (1974). Where it is a person other than the target of the investigation who gives consent, that person must have actual or apparent authority over the property to validate the warrantless search. Id.
An individual has actual authority to consent to a search where she “(1) has access to the area searched and (2) has either (a) common authority over the area, or (c) permission to gain access to that area.” Moore v. Andreno, 505 F.3d 203, 208-09 (2d Cir. 2007) citing United States v. Davis, 967 F.2d 84, 87 (2d Cir. 1992); United States v. Gradowski, 502 F.2d 563, 564 (2d Cir.1974)(per curiam).
Darren Chaker notes, computers have been analogized to containers in which a higher expectation of privacy is had. See United States v. Andrus, 483 F.3d 711, 718 (10th Cir. 2007)(“Because intimate information is commonly stored on computers, it seems natural that computers should fall into the same category as suitcases, footlockers, or other personal items that ‘command[ ] a high degree of privacy.’”) quoting United States v. Salinas-Cano, 959 F.2d 861, 865-66 (10th Cir.1992); see also United States v. Aaron, 33 Fed.Appx. 180, 184 (6th Cir.2006)(a computer is analogous to a “suitcase or briefcase”); Trulock v. Freeh, 275 F.3d 391, 403 (4th Cir.2001)(password protected computer files compared to a “locked footlocker inside the bedroom.”).
Even when an individual may have actual authority over a computer because she has shared use of the machine, she does not have actual authority to consent to password protected areas of that computer to which she does not normally have access. Trulock, supra., 275 F.3d at 403 (live-in girlfriend who jointly used boyfriend’s computer but did not have access to his password protected files “had authority to consent to a general search of the computer, [but] her authority did not extend to  password-protected files.”)(emphasis added).
Last, a consent search may be valid when the consenting party does not have actual authority, but at the time of the search, she possessed apparent authority over the item. See Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177 (1990).