Documents show FBI paid Geek Squad staff to inform on customers

Newly released documents show how the FBI paid Best Buy Geek Squad employees to report customers who had child pornography on their computers, a relationship that might have violated customers’ Fourth Amendment rights.

The FBI paid Best Buy Geek Squad employees to flag child pornography found on customers’ computers, according to documents released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The EFF, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit last year after the case of Mark Rettenmaier, a California doctor who faced child pornography charges, revealed a working relationship between the FBI and Geek Squad that goes back 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,” the EFF wrote. “That’s why we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit today 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. Read our complaint here [PDF].”

The released documents list payments of up to $1,000 from the FBI to Geek Squad employees; show that Best Buy hosted an FBI meeting at a repair facility in Kentucky; and outline a process of how the two parties would report and investigate customers: First, a Geek Squad employee would call the FBI’s Louisville field office when potential child porn was discovered. An agent would then travel to the store to review the content and seize the device if it contained illegal material. That agent would then send the device to another FBI office near where the owner lived, leaving local agents to pursue an investigation.

Document obtained by EFF

In November, a judge dropped the charges against Rettenmaier, who brought his computer to Best Buy for service in 2011, because FBI agents had made “false and misleading statements” to obtain a warrant to search the doctor’s home. The agents had failed to report that the child porn on Rettenmaier’s computer was discovered in unallocated space, meaning it had been deleted and could only have been retrieved by “carving” it out with forensic tools.

This suggests Geek Squad employees were “fishing” for illegal content on customer devices to help the FBI.

“Their relationship is so cozy,” James Riddet, Rettenmaier’s attorney, told The Washington Post last year, “and so extensive that it turns searches by Best Buy into government searches. 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.”

Best Buy told NPR that it reports child pornography to the FBI when discovered because of “moral and, in more than 20 states, a legal obligation,” but said its employees are prohibited from searching for “anything other than what is necessary to solve the customer's problem.” The company said it has reprimanded at least one of its employees who received payment from the FBI.

According to the EFF, the FBI has refused to confirm or deny whether it has similar relationships with other computer repair businesses, despite specific requests for such records in the lawsuit. The civil liberties organization plans to challenge the FBI in court later this year.

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