Documents obtained by the nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) confirm that Best Buy’s Geek Squad has been sharing information with the FBI without consumers’ permission for at least 10 years.
“We think the FBI’s use of Best Buy Geek Squad employees to search people’s computers without a warrant threatens to circumvent people’s constitutional rights,” wrote the EFF. “That’s why we filed an FOIA lawsuit…against the FBI seeking records about the extent to which it directs and trains Best Buy employees to conduct warrantless searches of people’s devices.”
Here’s how it works: you bring your computer to Best Buy to have it fixed. A Geek Squad employee finds something illegal (such as child pornography) and calls in the FBI to take a look. Law enforcement officials ask for a warrant.
This might sound like a good thing, especially if you don’t have anything illegal on your computer, but Geek Squad’s behavior represents a clear violation of The Fourth Amendment.
In addition, Geek Squad employees have been accused of stealing pornography from customers’ computers and searching hard drives for personal nude photos.
Records released to the EFF confirm one employee received $500 for sharing information with the FBI and show that members of the agency’s Cyber Working Group held a meeting at a Best Buy computer repair shop in Kentucky.
The relationship between Best Buy and the FBI was exposed last year during the case of Mark Rettenmaier, a California doctor who was charged with possession of child pornography. The pornography was found after he took his computer to Best Buy to be repaired.
“Their relationship is so cozy and so extensive that it turns searches by Best Buy into government searches,” argues James Riddet, the attorney who defended Rettenmaier. “If they’re going to set up that network between Best Buy supervisors and FBI agents, you run the risk that Best Buy is a branch of the FBI.”
Charges against Rettenmaier were dropped after it was discovered that Best Buy employees found the child pornography on a part of the hard drive that stores deleted material. This area is inaccessible without special tools – meaning that Geek Squad employees had been searching for illegal content.
Speaking to NPR, Best Buy said it had a “moral…and legal obligation” to report child pornography to law enforcement but that its employees are not allowed to look at “anything other than what is necessary to solve the customer’s problem.” Geek Squad employees “inadvertently” find child pornography nearly 100 times every year.
Best Buy noted that it does not encourage employees to accept money from the FBI and has fired at least three employees for doing so.
Meanwhile, the EFF is gearing up to fight the FBI in court this spring to obtain more information.
“The FBI’s Geek Squad informants should plainly qualify as agents of the government,” wrote the EFF. “The records disclosed thus far indicate that FBI agents paid Geek Squad informants to conduct these wide-ranging searches of customers’ devices, suggesting that officials both knew about the searches and directed the informants to conduct them. The payments Geek Squad informants received also demonstrate that they conducted the searches with the intent to assist the FBI.”
When asked, the FBI refused to state whether it had similar relationships with other computer repair companies.
Editor’s note: If you are repairing a computer, why are you searching through personal information? You don’t need to do that to find viruses, or restore information. With the financial incentives, every Geek Squad employee will be snooping through your drive. And then why not plant information so you can get paid?
And of course, why can’t others buy access to your data for a price? What about your business plan? What about your sales list?
The ethics here seem clear to us. Geek Squad employees are for sale. I won’t be going back to them.