Future Tense

An Ethical Computer-Repair Shop Wouldn’t Do That to Hunter Biden

The New York Post’s controversial “scoop” involves some shady behavior by a laptop repairman.

An Apple MacBook Pro laptop.
A repair shop owner supposedly found Hunter Biden dirt on a MacBook Pro. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The New York Post on Wednesday published a controversial article purporting to reveal emails between Hunter Biden and a Ukrainian energy executive. Numerous journalists have questioned the reliability of the Post’s reporting, pointing out that it echoes false narratives put out by the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, and that the information was provided by Rudy Giuliani, who has proven himself to be an untrustworthy source. Both Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to prevent the spread of the article out of concern that it may be inaccurate, rely on hacked material, or both.

One of the most bizarre and suspect aspects of the Post’s article is the way in which the reporters say they obtained the Hunter Biden dirt. In April 2019, according to the article, an unidentified individual dropped off a water-damaged MacBook Pro at a computer repair shop in Delaware, Joe and Hunter Biden’s home state. The customer never returned to retrieve the laptop or pay the bill, even though the shop owner repeatedly tried to reach out, according to the Post. The owner couldn’t positively identify the customer as Hunter Biden, but he says he noticed a Beau Biden Foundation sticker on the laptop. (The repair receipt that the Post claims to have obtained also lists Hunter Biden as the customer.) The owner then looked through the laptop’s hard drive and supposedly came across the emails, along with a lascivious video and images of Hunter Biden, so he alerted the FBI and handed over the devices. Before turning in the materials to the feds, though, the shop owner copied the hard drive and inexplicably decided to give a copy to Robert Costello, Rudy Giuliani’s lawyer. It was Giuliani who then supplied the reporters with the hard drive’s contents.

A lot of things don’t quite add up about this supremely weird account of how the information changed hands, not the least of which is the supposed conduct of the shop owner. The Daily Beast ended up tracking down and publishing an interview with a man claiming to be the man in question, in which he spouted conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and denounced Trump’s impeachment as a “sham.” He also said that there had actually been three laptops and that he had a medical condition that prevented him from seeing who exactly had dropped them off. The Daily Beast reported that the interviewee, John Paul Mac Isaac of Wilmington, kept changing his story about how he came into contact with the FBI.

Whatever the case may actually be, the turn of events as laid out by the Post has raised serious concerns among the computer-repair community. Assuming the story about the store owner actually happened as the Post described, then “ethically, you shouldn’t touch the data,” said Kyle Wiens, founder and CEO of the DIY electronics repair company iFixit. “Wipe the laptop, sell it, and move on with your life. That’s what the shop should’ve done.” Typically for a water-damage repair, there’s really no reason to do a thorough search of the hard drive. Given that the repair only cost $85, according to the receipt, Wiens suspects that all the repair person needed to do was to open up the laptop, dry it out, check it for corrosion, and then put it together again. The repair person may have needed to boot up the laptop and quickly access the hard drive just to make sure that the device is working again, but rifling through a customer’s emails and pictures falls way outside the bounds of what’s necessary.

The shop owner’s separate decisions to share the hard drive contents with the FBI and then with Giuliani pose different legal and ethical questions. Computer repair people are sometimes required to notify authorities if they discover criminal evidence on a customer’s device, but that’s usually only in cases of child pornography. Many states, including Delaware, have laws mandating such disclosures. For other crimes, it’s more or less up to the repair person’s discretion. A customer’s Fourth Amendment rights against warrantless searches and seizures wouldn’t necessarily apply if the repair people were to happen upon evidence through the course of routine servicing and turn it over to law enforcement on their own volition. “An individual just on their own seeing something and then reporting it doesn’t turn into a Fourth Amendment violation,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Aaron Mackey, who brought up the example of someone being asked to water their neighbor’s plants and then spotting something illegal in the garage. The equation changes when law enforcement begins paying repair people for turning over evidence, as was the case with the Best Buy Geek Squad’s cozy relationship with the FBI, which Mackey uncovered in 2018, but that doesn’t seem to have happened with the Biden laptop. One could argue that fact that the hard drive was reportedly abandoned may also give law enforcement more leeway to search it, though the question of how the Fourth Amendment applies to discarded personal electronic devices still hasn’t been settled by the courts.

The shop owner’s purported move to search the laptop and give the info to Giuliani could also have legal ramifications, but they would likely be in the form of a civil suit. “There’s no law that I’m aware of that criminalizes a computer repair facility for doing something different from what they promised or mistreating your data or misusing it, or copying it in a way you weren’t expecting,” Mackey said. The customer could try to sue over a contract breach or privacy violation. Computer repair shops generally abide by a set of ethics that is stricter than what is spelled out by the law. For example, iFixit has a code of conduct that any shop in its network has to follow. Wiens said, “As a repair professional, your integrity is on the line. If customers have an inkling that you could do something with their data and then provide it to a newspaper or the lawyer of your enemy, why would they ever trust you?”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.