Snooping service techs may make home computers unsafe havens for personal files
You may think your home computer or laptop is a safe place to conduct personal business. But keeping the contents of that equipment confidential isn't guaranteed once you hand it over to service technicians for repairs, or even if workers enter your house to install cable or phone lines.
"Customers have no protection at all," said Ian Friedman, an attorney whose Cleveland law firm specializes in defending individuals accused of computer sex crimes. "You're not afforded the right to privacy."
Mr. Friedman, who also teaches at the Cleveland Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, said that among the reasons consumers are so frequently caught unaware by technicians uncovering private data, including pornography, is that it's not against the law for technicians to peruse everything stored on computers they may be servicing.
"If they are not government agents, it's not illegal." Government agents or law enforcement officials need a warrant to enter your home or personal files.
Privacy issues surrounding technology came to light in Pittsburgh recently with the case of a Mt. Lebanon real estate developer who pleaded guilty to one count of possession of child pornography. He was charged after Internet service technicians came to his home last year to install fiber-optic cable and found six compact discs on a basement air duct. One technician placed a disc in the home computer and saw pornographic images of children.
Local Internet providers Verizon and Comcast said they train workers to report to authorities the instances of child pornography they come across while servicing customers' equipment. But the companies declined to comment on how far their technicians go in looking for such material.
"As a company, Verizon takes customers' privacy very seriously ... and has an obligation to report instances of child pornography," said spokesman Lee Gierczynski.
Said Comcast spokeswoman Jody Doherty: "As an Internet and phone service provider, we are required by federal law to report any incidents of apparent child pornography that we become aware of in the normal course of business to the appropriate law enforcement officers. We take that responsibility very seriously."
Because such phone and Internet technicians aren't working for the government, there is no legal guidance on what they can inspect, said Mr. Friedman.
"And there's really no recourse [to the customer] if they turn over that information to the police. At best you may have a civil action against the company if [its workers] were snooping around the house. But your [civil] case won't go far if the federal authorities have you under possession of some sort of contraband."
Electronics retailer Best Buy has come under fire from consumers who believe the chain's Geek Squad technicians are deliberately scanning for porn when they make computer repairs.
As long as consumers are going to contract with service technicians for home installations or repairs, Mr. Friedman advises, "Don't commit any crimes and don't store any evidence on your computer. There's nothing to stop a prying technician or a snooping technician from bringing you to the authorities."
Pradeep Khosla, co-founder of Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab, a research institute, said there was little protection afforded consumers about what technicians see or do not see.
If you authorize service people to work on your equipment, he said: "Your screen should be locked. The password should be locked so the technician has to ask you to unlock it."
Still, consumers who download or copy pornography or other questionable material into their personal computers run a great risk when others have access, said Mr. Friedman.
"It happens all the time; it just amazes me," the Cleveland lawyer said. "If you don't want someone to look at it, don't put it on there."
First Published October 3, 2007 12:00 am