Geek Squad techs get a $500 spiff from the FBI for snooping through customer’s computers

❝ FBI agents and prosecutors usually strut inside Santa Ana’s Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, knowing they’ve focused the wrath of the criminal-justice system on a particular criminal. But an unusual child-pornography-possession case has placed officials on the defensive for nearly 26 months. Questions linger about law-enforcement honesty, unconstitutional searches, underhanded use of informants and twisted logic…

Rettenmaier is a prominent Orange County physician and surgeon who had no idea that a Nov. 1, 2011, trip to a Mission Viejo Best Buy would jeopardize his freedom and eventually raise concerns about, at a minimum, FBI competency or, at worst, corruption. Unable to boot his HP Pavilion desktop computer, he sought the assistance of the store’s Geek Squad. At the time, nobody knew the company’s repair technicians routinely searched customers’ devices for files that could earn them $500 windfalls as FBI informants…

❝ According to court records, Geek Squad technician John “Trey” Westphal, an FBI informant, reported he accidentally located on Rettenmaier’s computer an image of “a fully nude, white prepubescent female on her hands and knees on a bed, with a brown choker-type collar around her neck.” Westphal notified his boss, Justin Meade, also an FBI informant, who alerted colleague Randall Ratliff, another FBI informant at Best Buy, as well as the FBI. Claiming the image met the definition of child pornography and was tied to a series of illicit pictures known as the “Jenny” shots, agent Tracey Riley seized the hard drive.

❝ Setting aside the issue of whether the search of Rettenmaier’s computer constituted an illegal search by private individuals acting as government agents, the FBI undertook a series of dishonest measures in hopes of building a case…James D. Riddet, Rettenmaier’s attorney…says 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.

❝ To convict someone of child-pornography charges, the government must prove the suspect knowingly possessed the image. But in Rettenmaier’s case, the alleged “Jenny” image was found on unallocated “trash” space, meaning it could only be retrieved by “carving” with costly, highly sophisticated forensics tools. In other words, it’s arguable a computer’s owner wouldn’t know of its existence…Worse for the FBI, a federal appellate court unequivocally declared in February 2011…that pictures found on unallocated space did not constitute knowing possession because it is impossible to determine when, why or who downloaded them…

❝ The case is presently so tenuous that Riddet, who has 47 years of court experience, suggests that federal officials sloppily pushed for an unnecessary arrest…But the biggest issue remains whether Geek Squad technicians acted as secret law-enforcement agents and, thus, violated Fourth Amendment prohibitions against warrantless government searches. Riddet claims records show “FBI and Best Buy made sure that during the period from 2007 to the present, there was always at least one supervisor who was an active informant.” He also said, “The FBI appears to be able to access data at [Best Buy’s main repair facility in Brooks, Kentucky] whenever they want.” Calling the relationship between the agency and the Geek Squad relevant to pretrial motions, Judge Cormac Carney approved Riddet’s request to question agents under oath.

The FBI can be trusted to obey the law, constitutional rights and respect the privacy of American citizens – about as much as the average armed burglar. Since I’ve been down this road before — and won — I’d suggest that any concerned citizens who’ve been taking their computers in to Best Buy for Geek Squad service Google around to stay in touch with possible class action suits resulting from information revealed in this case.

It stinks on ice.

Is there a Religious Left in America?


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❝ The religious left is the Sasquatch of American politics. It leaves footprints in the snow but recent sightings of the creature itself are rare, and not always credible.

Progressive politics is dominated by secular ideals and, increasingly, secular voters. In recent decades, the words “Christian” and “evangelical” have been commandeered as synonyms for “white conservative.” Religious liberals never achieved the power of their conservative opposites…The once-explosive growth of conservative evangelicals has stalled. Yet the religious left doesn’t appear to be benefiting much.

Instead, the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated are growing. A 2016 report by the Public Religion Research Institute stated: “Today, one-quarter (25 percent) of Americans claim no formal religious identity, making this group the single largest ‘religious group’ in the U.S.”

❝ Yet if ever there were a moment for the left to seize the mantle of religion from conservatives, surely it arrives Jan. 20 at noon. Donald Trump received the votes of four in five white evangelical or born-again Christians. Hypocrisy is as old as humanity, but even hypocrisy has a gross weight limit.

Christian conservatives are now inextricably tied to an incoming president with a long, public history of exploiting the weak, and no documented history of charity, faith or Christian communion or witness. They have endorsed a First Lady whose modeling career included a pornographic photo shoot described by the Trump-friendly New York Post as “girl on girl.” Even among the plaster saints of the religious right, Trump is a heavy burden to bear.

❝ Sojourners is one of the groups seeking to rally the religious left. “Our Constitution’s protection of religious freedom empowers faith institutions to oppose state-sanctioned bigotry and violence and creates strong sanctuaries for those Jesus called the ‘least of these’ in Matthew 25,” said Lisa Sharon Harper…

A coalition of groups has launched the “Matthew 25” initiative to fight an expected barrage of federal policies targeting the most vulnerable — including the poor, immigrants and Muslims. “These people are organizing under the banner of Jesus,” Harper said.

❝ In North Carolina, the liberal “Moral Mondays” movement has been partially credited with the election in November of Democrat Roy Cooper as governor. The success of the movement — named for weekly public demonstrations against the conservative legislature and incumbent governor — is a powerful precedent. It gained momentum not only because of charismatic religious leadership, but because of unusually aggressive Republican efforts to undermine voting rights and cut funding for education and services…

❝ Trump’s regular shocks to decency, along with an expected Republican assault on funding for the poor, will outrage both secular liberals and the religious left. But will that be enough to bring the left’s religious Sasquatch out of hiding?

I have no idea. Being an old cranky geek, I’m less likely to find myself marching than blogging, nowadays.

There was a time when I could count on cellmates who were priests, partners canvassing door-to-door who were nuns, family and friends who learned childhood ethics in Protestant Yankee denominations who dedicated time and effort to the betterment of life on earth – instead of preaching faith in Wall Street dollar$ over old-timey Christian values.

I wish Sojourners well. Same to the brave folks leading the activism of Moral Monday in Confederate and other Republican states. I respect your courage and integrity. As I always have. But, I surely wish you had more friends.

Brazil pledges the restoration of 85000 square miles of forest


Alstom Foundation workers in Brazil – doing it on their own

❝ Brazil will restore 22 million hectares of land in what’s being called “the largest restoration commitment ever made by a single nation.”

“We are a country of forests,” says Rachel Biderman, director of the World Resources Institute in Brazil. “The national strategy for the restoration of forests and degraded areas positions Brazil as one of the global leaders in the development of a forest economy.”

❝ Between now and 2030, Brazil plans to rehabilitate 12 million hectares of forest land that is degraded or deforested. The balance of the area will be restored and developed through the country’s Low-Carbon Agriculture Plan for crops, managed forests, and pastures. Brazil made the plan public at the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity in Cancún, Mexico, on December 3rd…

❝ Biderman said in a statement. “Restoring 22 million hectares — an area larger than Uruguay — will absorb huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, generate clean and plentiful water, and boost agricultural productivity.”

In addition, she said that the healthier, more productive landscapes will generate new jobs and boost Brazil’s economy. According to the WRI, Brazil’s Ministries of Environment and Agriculture teamed up to put together the deal.

Biderman added: “We have all the conditions — ecological, economic, and material — to be internationally competitive, improving technical knowledge and creating jobs.”

Regional collective action seems to continue apace in a number of areas on this planet with a healthy conscience – and an even healthier understanding of the economics of building a Green economy.

First London-bound freight train departs China

The first freight train from China to London set off on Sunday on a journey that will cover a staggering 7,456 miles.

It departed from Yiwu West railway station in Zhejiang Province, China, and will arrive in Barking, London, having been trundling along for 18 days.

Its route will snake through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium, France and finally Britain.

The service is being run by the China Railway Corporation. Britain is the eighth country to be added to its list of destinations, with London its 15th city.

The new route is set to boost trade ties between the UK and China with goods such as clothing and bags delivered along the re-established Silk Road, connecting Europe and Asia, according to The Indian Express, which cited a report from Xinhua news agency.

The focus on strengthening trade by expanding China’s railway infrastructure and network is part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy, announced in late 2013.

I don’t think anyone asked Donald Trump for planning permission. Or ever will.