A child porn indictment in California has led to a full-fledged examination of the FBI’s use of “private searches.” Private searches, performed by citizens, can be used to instigate investigations and obtain warrants. In this case, the private searches were performed by Best Buy Geek Squad members, who came across alleged child porn images while fixing the defendant’s computer.
Private searches during computer repairs are normal. But they’re not roughly analogous to searches performed with a warrant. Companies that repair electronic devices are legally required to report discovered child porn to law enforcement. What they’re not supposed to do, however, is dig through devices they’re repairing in hopes of finding something illegal.
Most techs don’t go looking for child porn. But the FBI’s close relationship with Best Buy turned private searches into searches performed by paid informants. Once government money is introduced into the equation, the search can no longer be considered “private.” The introduction of cash rewards also skews the incentives, possibly encouraging Geek Squad members to spend more time looking for illicit images than focusing on the repair job at hand.
Documents uncovered in this case strongly suggest the FBI has been using Best Buy repair center techs as confidential informants, paying them for their discoveries while claiming these warrantless, secondhand searches are nothing more than completely legal “private searches.”