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That IT Guy Could Also Be a Paid FBI Informant

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 12, 2017 2:57 PM

If you hand your computer over to Best Buy's Geek Squad for repairs, you might get more than just a quick fix. You might get reported to the FBI. That's because the FBI pays Best Buy technicians who discover and report child pornography to the agency, according to a lawsuit in California.

But when the Geek Squad snoops on behalf of the government, are such searches legal?

From Geek Squad to Sneak Squad

The case, which is currently before U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney of the Central District of California, arose after California physician Mark Rettenmaier took his computer to Best Buy for repairs. Employees spotted an image of "a nude prepubescent girl on a bed," according to the Washington Post, and reported it to the FBI. Rettenmaier was charged with the possession of child pornography -- and Best Buy's reporting technician supervisor was paid $500 for the tip.

Rettenmaier's attorneys say the FBI has cultivated at least eight "confidential human sources" in the Geek Squad over the past four years, the Post reports.

Best Buy or the FBI?

The Geek Squad employees likely wouldn't have done anything wrong if they had searched the computer on their own and reported what they found without payment. After all, Rettenmaier had sent his computer in for data recovery, which necessarily entails searching through its hard drive.

But Rettenmaier alleges that the Best Buy employees weren't just working as private members of the Geek Squad. Since they were paid informants, they were acting as arms of the government, he says. What's more, the image they found was on "unallocated space," the area of the hard drive where deleted files are stored until overwritten, and which requires special forensic software to access. It was not just laying out for the world to see.

The relationship between some Best Buy technicians and the FBI "is so cozy," defense attorney James D. Riddet says, "and so extensive that it turns searches by Best Buy into government searches. If they're going to set up that network between Best Buy supervisors and FBI agents, you run the risk that Best Buy is a branch of the FBI." If that's the case, the search violated the Fourth Amendment, Rettenmaier's attorneys argue.

However, Rettenmaier waived any Fourth Amendment claims when he signed the Geek Squad's service order, according to prosecutors. That order stated: "I am on notice that any product containing child pornography will be turned over to the authorities."

As for Best Buy, the company says it is required by law to report child pornography that's unintentionally discovered during repairs, but that accepting payment for those reports "is certainly not part of our normal business behavior."

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