The Federal Bureau of Investigation calls itself an “intelligence-driven and threat-focused national security organization.” In all its self-praising, it fails to mention the unconstitutional and even illegal acts that it is currently involved in—such as paying Best Buy employees working on the Geek Squad to dig through customers’ computers looking for things they can investigate.
In one recent case, a prominent physician and surgeon in Orange County took his computer to the local Best Buy and had one of the Geek Squad folks look at it since he was unable to boot it up. What the doctor didn’t know—what no one knew—was that “the company’s repair technicians routinely searched customers’ devices for files that could earn them $500 windfalls as FBI informants.”
The technician reported to his boss that he “accidentally” found child porn on the doctor’s computer. His boss was another informant, and he told both a third informant and the FBI, who seized the hard drive.
At this point, the average reader probably thinks that the nasty pervert got what he deserved and that the employees were ethically bound—if not legally so—to report finding such material on a customer’s computer. The truth, however, is not that simple. The FBI had already broken the law by using the Geek Squad technicians to perform what amount to illegal, warrantless searches of a private individual’s computer, over and above the scope of the repair work that the customer requested. The FBI was also offering monetary incentives to any of the employees who chose to dig around in customer files and found something the FBI would be interested in investigating.
To bring a case against the doctor, the FBI needed to find a way to reconstruct ‘finding’ the evidence to cover up their illegal search. The defense said agents “conducted two additional searches of the computer without obtaining necessary warrants, lied to trick a federal magistrate judge into authorizing a search warrant, then tried to cover up their misdeeds by initially hiding records.” Making the case even murkier was the fact that the images resided in a part of the hard drive that made it quite possible that the doctor did not even know they were there—hidden in unallocated space, possibly placed there by malware, and only accessible by forensic software.
The most important part of this story is not that a doctor may or may not have knowingly had child porn on his computer. It’s not even that Best Buy employees were overly nosy at best and planted filth on customer’s computers to get paid at worst. The problem is greater than that—and speaks to a dangerous culture within law enforcement agencies, who seem to grow ever more creative at finding ways to avoid adhering to the Constitutional protections of the Fourth Amendment. The issue is that they are not just conducting illegal searches of private files, but that they are paying employees of private companies to do it for them—and in doing so, they are encouraging citizens to spy on and report each other to the government for money.
Perhaps even more disturbing is that pedophiles and other predators against children serve as examples of situations where they claim illegal searches worked. The cases are held up as positive examples of law enforcement at work. It’s a very calculated effort to normalize the surveillance state and ensure that the public sees the violations as not just a good thing, but a necessary thing to keep our children safe. Those who prey on children are the lowest of the low even among fellow criminals; certainly, as the argument goes, no law-abiding American would stand in the way of law enforcement doing whatever is necessary to get them off the streets. Faced with the logical fallacy of ‘support law enforcement or support pedophiles,’ the public focuses on the result—never realizing that in doing so, they have tightened the noose around their own necks.
Sadly, the idea of government agencies and law enforcement paying employees at various businesses to spy on their customers is not a new one. Last July, a San Bernardino UPS employee was performing illegal searches on packages at the behest—and on the payroll—of the county sheriff’s department. The Postal Service is also scanning all mail and making that data available to any federal law enforcement agency that wants it, without a warrant ( a post-9/11 addition). The Drug Enforcement Agency even got caught by the Inspector General paying agents from the Transportation Security Administration to notify them if anyone was traveling with large sums of money—in return, they would get a cut of what they seized.
There is no proof that the doctor ever viewed the images on his computer, or even knew they were there; even the government had to stipulate that they could not prove the charges. There is, however, plenty of proof that federal law enforcement agencies are willing to do anything, including violate the Constitution and break the law, even if their target might be innocent. That isn’t something that Best Buy customers—or anyone else in America—should allow.