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Can an employer report illegal material found on your computer?

A child pornography case in California has sparked discussion and debate not only in the cyber law community but among employers across the country regarding the right to privacy and illegal search and seizure of material obtained on people's computers without a warrant or their permission.

In this specific case, members of Best Buy's Geek Squad were working on a customer's laptop computer brought in for service when they found a deleted image featuring child pornography in the hard drive's free space. They provided the image to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which gave them a $500 reward.

The owner of the laptop was prosecuted on child pornography charges. The admissibility of the evidence has been challenged.

Best Buy has said that its employees violated corporate policy by receiving payment for turning over the image. However, in a statement, the company said, "Best Buy and Geek Squad have no relationship with the FBI."

However, whenever employees discover what appears to be child pornography, "we have a legal and moral obligation to turn that material over to law enforcement. We are proud of our policy and share it with our customers before we begin any repair.

One cyber law attorney notes that if the FBI, Secret Service or other federal agency paid computer technicians to turn over illegal material, that would in essence make them agents and therefore subject to the requirement for a warrant that would have to specify what they were searching for.

Companies like Best Buy that delve into the hard drives of people's computers as well as companies whose IT employees can access its employees' systems can get around legal issues if they find illegal material by requiring the computer's owner or user to sign an agreement upfront that gives permission for hard drive searches.

Of course, most people who work in corporate environments or who have laptops at home that are owned by their employers probably assume that all materials on the device are subject to search by that employer. However, if you are facing investigation or charges by law enforcement based on any type of illegal material or activity found on your computer without a search warrant, it may be possible to challenge its admissibility. Ohio defense attorneys with experience in cyber law can provide guidance.

Source: NetworkWorld, "Lessons for corporate IT from Geek Squad legal case," Tim Greene, Jan. 12, 2017

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