The Electronic Frontier Foundation is suing the FBI for records “about the extent to which it directs and trains Best Buy employees to conduct warrantless searches of people’s devices.” The lawsuit stems around an incident in 2011 where a gynecology doctor took his computer for repairs at Best Buy’s Geek Squad. The repair technician was a paid FBI informant that found child pornography on the doctor’s computer, ultimately resulting in the doctor being charged with possessing child pornography. From the EFF’s report: A federal prosecution of a doctor in California revealed that the FBI has been working for several years to cultivate informants in Best Buy’s national repair facility in Brooks, Kentucky, including reportedly paying eight Geek Squad employees as informants. According to court records in the prosecution of the doctor, Mark Rettenmaier, the scheme would work as follows: Customers with computer problems would take their devices to the Geek Squad for repair. Once Geek Squad employees had the devices, they would surreptitiously search the unallocated storage space on the devices for evidence of suspected child porn images and then report any hits to the FBI for criminal prosecution. Court records show that some Geek Squad employees received $500 or $1,000 payments from the FBI. At no point did the FBI get warrants based on probable cause before Geek Squad informants conducted these searches. Nor are these cases the result of Best Buy employees happening across potential illegal content on a device and alerting authorities. Rather, the FBI was apparently directing Geek Squad workers to conduct fishing expeditions on people’s devices to find evidence of criminal activity. Prosecutors would later argue, as they did in Rettenmaier’s case, that because private Geek Squad personnel conducted the searches, there was no Fourth Amendment violation. The judge in Rettenmaier’s case appeared to agree with prosecutors, ruling earlier this month that because the doctor consented both orally and in writing to the Geek Squad’s search of his device, their search did not amount to a Fourth Amendment violation. The court, however, threw out other evidence against Rettenmaier after ruling that FBI agents misstated key facts in the application for a warrant to search his home and smartphone. We disagree with the court’s ruling that Rettenmaier consented to a de-facto government search of his devices when he sought Best Buy’s help to repair his computer. But the court’s ruling demonstrates that law enforcement agents are potentially exploiting legal ambiguity about when private searches become government action that appears intentionally designed to try to avoid the Fourth Amendment.
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