Technology is part of our everyday lives, but its ubiquity also means that problems arise that require a technician to fix. When we turn in our computers for repair, technicians often have unfettered access to personal information including documents, photos and videos. Most people do not engage in illegal activity online or keep compromising information on their devices, but new incentives from law enforcement could turn your computer repairman against you.
A recent report shows alleged collaboration between the FBI and Best Buy's Geek Squad, one of the largest technology support service organizations in the country. In one incident, the FBI reportedly paid as much as $500 to a Geek Squad manager in Kentucky for turning over images alleged to contain child pornography.
An arrangement like this creates a precarious set of legal issues for the government and consumer alike. What was intended to be a routine repair for the customer could become a criminal investigation by the government. Do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy when turning in your computer for repair? Is paid cooperation by tech support companies and the FBI considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment?
Searches by private companies are legal
Unlike a search by law enforcement, computer searches done by private parties are legal. In a statement, Best Buy said they believe they have "a moral and legal obligation" to report potentially illegal material found on personal computers. However, that "obligation" could cross the line when private parties are incentivized by government agencies to turn over compromising material.
Law enforcement officers operate on a "reasonable expectation of privacy" or plain view doctrine when conducting searches. Even when an officer has a warrant, they are only able to search areas that are permitted by a judge. But, private parties could potentially search anywhere if the nature of a repair requires deep digging into a device.
However, when a private party does work on behalf of the police, it can mean real consequences for innocent people.
Innocent images can be mistaken for pornography
Child abuse and pornography cases have been quick to draw headlines since the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State University. After the Sandusky scandal, another football coach in Minnesota had cute pictures of his kids turn into an ugly criminal investigation when he took his cell phone in for repair in 2012.
Technicians found pictures on the coach's phone that they believed were illegal. The repair shop turned the files into the authorities, who charged the coach with crimes of child pornography and child endangerment. He was then fired from his job with a successful team and fought a 17-month legal battle to clear two felony charges from his name. As it turned out, the video in question on his cell phone was of his three children, recorded while they were playing after getting out of the bathtub.
Real criminals can take advantage of protections designed to shield innocent citizens from unreasonable invasions of privacy by the government. News headlines and tech companies can misinterpret and misuse personal information. But the Fourth Amendment and passionate criminal defense lawyers work against those factors to keep personal devices away from prying eyes.