Before You Call Geek Squad, You Should Know That Your Computer Repair Person May Be an FBI Informant

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation has some explaining to do.

An investigative report at OC Weekly pinpoints the event that led to child pornography charges against Mark Rettenmaier, a prominent physician and surgeon: dropping his computer off at Best Buy for a repair.

Rettenmaier's computer was shipped from California to Best Buy's repair facility in Brooks, Kentucky. According to an article at The Washington Post, it's argued that Ratttenmaier (indeed, all customers):

“waived any right to raise a Fourth Amendment claim” because it contained the admonition: “I am on notice that any product containing child pornography will be turned over to the authorities.”

But, buried in his computer's “unallocated” storage space was an image that a Geek Squad repairman determined was child porn. This Best Buy employee also happened to be an FBI informant, as was a supervisor at the repair facility. The rest, as they say, is history... or may at least become legal precedent.

At issue are both the legality and ethics of employees functioning as paid informants for intelligence agencies and how the case against Rettenmaier was built. Getting paid for information is certainly against Best Buy's internal policy.

As Jeff Haydock, the company's vice president of communications, told OC Weekly:

“Best Buy is required by law to report the discovery of certain illegal material to law enforcement, but being paid by authorities to do so would violate company policy,” Haydock said. "If these reports are true, it is purely poor individual judgement. If we discover child pornography in the normal course of servicing a computer, phone or tablet, we have an obligation to contact law enforcement. We believe this is the right thing to do, and we inform our customers before beginning any work that this is our policy.''

Additionally, TechDirt notes that the FBI's handling of the case against Rettenmaier shakes confidence in intelligence agencies already under close scrutiny for sketchy policies with deference to Fourth Amendment rights. Citing Rettenmaier's attorney, James D. Riddet, on how the information from the Best Buy informant led to a search of his client's home:

In hopes of overcoming this obstacle, they performed a sleight-of-hand maneuver, according to Riddet. The agents simply didn't alert Judge Marc Goldman that the image in question had been buried in unallocated space and, thus, secured deceitful authorization for a February 2012 raid on Rettenmaier's Laguna Niguel residence.

In the original post at OC Weekly, the author notes the importance of the file's location:

...the alleged “Jenny” image was found on unallocated “trash” space, meaning it could only be retrieved by “carving” with costly, highly sophisticated forensics tools. In other words, it's arguable a computer's owner wouldn't know of its existence. (For example, malware can secretly implant files.) Worse for the FBI, a federal appellate court unequivocally declared in February 2011 (USA v. Andrew Flyer) that pictures found on unallocated space did not constitute knowing possession because it is impossible to determine when, why or who downloaded them.

The judge overseeing the case is allowing the defense to question the “cozy” relationship between the paid Geek Squad informants and the FBI during a hearing to begin on Wednesday. That questioning could undermine the entire case built by the FBI. As the article at TechDirt puts it:

Considering the FBI is already the beneficiary of legal reporting requirements, this move seems ill-advised. It jeopardizes the legitimacy of the evidence, even before the FBI engages in the sort of self-sabotaging acts it appears to have done here.

While it is difficult to find sympathy for someone who may be engaging in the trade of child porn, it should concern every American citizen that intelligence agencies can skirt warrant requirements for searches and that U.S. tax dollars are being used to incentivize private informants to violate privacy in hopes of a payday.

View Comments(3 comments)
Calvin41Addressing the wider issues beyond the behaviors reported in this news story, it should be noted that sScientific studies based on credible empirical evidence do not support the mass hysteria and moral panic that currently surrounds so-called "child pornography." According to several objective research reports, some of which are discussed in the essay linked below, the viewing of this material can be seen as essentially a "thought crime," is most often harmless, and does not always lead to behaviors which are currently considered to be criminal. Many – perhaps most - of those charged with possessing and viewing "child pornography" have never been involved with a child. For an essay discussing this subject published in a reputable scientific journal, Google "Effects on Boy-Attracted Pedosexual Males of Viewing Boy Erotica"Also, the conjecture that all "child pornography" subjects are unwilling "victims" is not supported by empirical facts,  and the concept that children are hurt every time their image is viewed simply is not rational – the child most likely never knows about such viewings. Furthermore, there are no legitimate data supporting intrinsic harmfulness, and no credible pathway or mechanism for such harm has been demonstrated. For further discussion, Google "The Missing Mechanism of Harm"For a free downloadable 94 page book on these issues which includes voluntary anonymous testimony from now grown former child "actors," Google "Beyond Hysteria"
William QuinionThis violation of the fourth amendment has already been used by local police to download messages to an accused person's cell phone of which they were unaware due to the download being made after the cell phone was confiscated along with her co-defendent !!! The FALSE evidence was used to convict the accused, without a trial. and have the accused confined to Prison for a crime she did not commit for a period of four years with an additional three years probation!!! Not only was her 4th amendment RIGHT'S violated but also her 5th, 6th. and 8th amendmen's for an alleged crime of theft of $200 Dollars based on FALSE Deposition's of two Plaintiff''s without proof of their accusation's!!! Two women were accused with Bail set for the originator of the alleged crime at $1000 Dollars and for the previously uninformed WITNESS set at $ 50,000 thousand Dollars!!! State law concerning Arraignment was also violated and her cash and property were confiscated when according to LAW should have been returned to her before they could be compremised by the police!!! A determination by the DOJ that Judicial Misconduct was not evident in this case CLEARLY indicates that the EXAMINERS assigned to review this case were not QUALIFIED to render a FAIR DECISION in the interest of JUSTICE and the PROTECTION of the accused,RIGHT???