New documents reveal FBI paid Geek Squad repair staff as informants

A freedom of information request revealed that the FBI used the Best Buy division's repair staff to flag illegal content.

(Image: file photo)

The relationship between the FBI and employees of Best Buy's computer and device repair unit Geek Squad is more complex than first thought, according to newly released documents.

Records posted Tuesday by the Electronic Frontier Foundation following a freedom of information lawsuit filed last year reveal that federal agents would pay Geek Squad managers who pass on information about illegal materials on devices sent in by customers for repairs.

The relationship goes back at least ten years, according to documents released as a result of the lawsuit.

The aim of the FBI's Louisville division was to maintain a "close liaison" with Geek Squad management to "glean case initiations and to support the division's Computer Intrusion and Cyber Crime programs," the documents say.

According to the EFF's analysis of the documents, FBI agents would "show up, review the images or video and determine whether they believe they are illegal content" and seize the device so an additional analysis could be carried out at a local FBI field office.

That's when, in some cases, agents would try to obtain a search warrant to justify the access.

The EFF's lawsuit was filed in response to a report that a Geek Squad employee was used as an informant by the FBI in the prosecution of a case involving child abuse imagery.

One released document showed a $500 payment by the FBI to a "confidential human source" whose name was redacted that the EFF said was the same amount as a payment made in the prosecution of Mark Rettenmaier, a California physician and surgeon who was charged with possessing child abuse imagery, found after he sent in his computer to Best Buy for repairs.

The documents show that the FBI would regularly use Geek Squad employees as confidential human sources -- the agency's term for informants -- by taking calls from employees when they found something suspect.

Also: Online security 101: Tips for protecting your privacy from hackers and spies

But that relationship and data handover could violate Americans' constitutional rights to protections from unwarranted searches and seizures, the privacy group charges.

Because the FBI uses Geek Squad as informants, the EFF says that any search should be seen as a warrantless search carried out by proxy, "and thus any evidence obtained as a result of the illegal searches should be thrown out of court."

When reached, a Best Buy spokesperson offered a lengthy statement, which we're publishing in full. The company confirmed that three of four managers who received payments from the FBI are no longer at the company.

"As we said more than a year ago, our Geek Squad repair employees discover what appears to be child pornography on customers' computers nearly 100 times a year. Our employees do not search for this material; they inadvertently discover it when attempting to confirm we have recovered lost customer data.

We have a moral and, in more than 20 states, a legal obligation to report these findings to law enforcement. We share this policy with our customers in writing before we begin any repair.

As a company, we have not sought or received training from law enforcement in how to search for child pornography. Our policies prohibit employees from doing anything other than what is necessary to solve the customer's problem. In the wake of these allegations, we have redoubled our efforts to train employees on what to do -- and not do -- in these circumstances.

We have learned that four employees may have received payment after turning over alleged child pornography to the FBI. Any decision to accept payment was in very poor judgement and inconsistent with our training and policies. Three of these employees are no longer with the company and the fourth has been reprimanded and reassigned."

The FBI declined to comment.

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Zack Whittaker can be reached securely on Signal and WhatsApp at 646-755–8849, and his PGP fingerprint for email is: 4D0E 92F2 E36A EC51 DAAE 5D97 CB8C 15FA EB6C EEA5.

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