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