Privacy Law

FBI pays Geek Squad members who find child porn, California case reveals

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The relationship between the FBI and some members of Best Buy’s Geek Squad—who were paid for their tips about child pornography—will be examined at a federal court hearing in California this week.

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney granted a motion for discovery in December filed on behalf of Mark Rettenmaier, a California physician who was charged with possession of child pornography after he took his computer to Best Buy for repairs, report the Orange County Weekly and the Washington Post.

The computer was shipped to Best Buy’s data recovery facility in Kentucky in November 2011. Employees there notified the FBI after seeing an an image of a nude prepubescent female wearing a choker collar. A search warrant was later issued for a search of Rettenmaier’s home and hard drive.

The motion filed by Rettenmaier’s lawyer contended Best Buy employees searched the computer for child porn to assist law enforcement and it was done with the government’s knowledge. Such a search, the motion argues, would violate Rettenmaier’s Fourth Amendment rights and any additional evidence found in later searches should be suppressed.

The FBI has had eight different sources at its Kentucky facility, where Rettenmaier’s computer was sent for repair, Carney’s opinion said. All of the Kentucky workers had received payments at some point before Rettenmeier’s computer image was reported to the FBI, Carney said.

According to the defense, the suspect image was located in “unallocated space,” which can’t be accessed without specialized tools. The presence of such an image doesn’t demonstrate the computer owner accessed the image, the motion said, and that information should have been included in the search warrant affidavit.

Assistant U.S. Attorney M. Anthony Brown tells the Orange County Weekly that the suggestion the Geek Squad members searched Rettenmaier’s computer on behalf of the FBI is “wild speculation.”

Best Buy issued a statement saying it is required by law to report the discovery of certain illegal material to law enforcement, but being paid for the information would violate company policy.

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