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Are The Contents Of Your Computer Really Private?

What happens when a computer repairman uncovers evidence of illegal acts on a computer the repairman is servicing? The right thing to do is for the repairman to alert law enforcement authorities. But a case in California has revealed a troubling relationship between the FBI and some employees of a leading national computer service provider. It raises serious questions involving the Fourth Amendment and a person's reasonable expectation of privacy.

The case arose when a California doctor sent his computer to Best Buy's Geek Squad team of computer technicians. When the technicians looked into the computer, they found an image that they thought to be child pornography and alerted the FBI. The doctor was subsequently charged with child pornography crimes.

But as it turns out, this isn't the first time Geek Squad has reported finding child pornography on the computers it services. After conducting an investigation, the doctor's defense attorneys found that the FBI maintained close relations with eight computer technicians in Geek Squad's repair operation in Brooks, Kentucky, over a four year period. The FBI apparently cultivated the technicians' loyalty by giving them cash payments on what amounted to a retainer basis. The Geek Squad technicians regularly informed the FBI when they uncovered images that appeared to be child pornography.

The judge in this case has allowed the doctor's defense attorneys to probe the relationship between Best Buy and the FBI. Some of the questions needing answers include these:

  • When someone gives their computer to a repair service, do they forfeit their right to privacy?
  • Does this violate the Fourth Amendment's right to be free from unreasonable searches?
  • When an informant gets paid, does it damage their credibility?
  • Does it turn the informant into an agent of the government, and if so, is a warrant required before an informant/repair technician looks at the contents of a hard drive?

This particular case involves alleged child pornography, but the privacy issues it raises could also apply in cases involving other internet crimes such as fraud or support of terrorism.

A detailed account of this case can be found in this Washington Post article.