FBI used Best Buy's Geek Squad as confidential informants, FOIA docs show

News by Teri Robinson

Does the US' FBI really need tech companies to provide backdoors in their products to gain access to illegal material stored there? Apparently not...as long as members of the Geek Squad are willing to do the agency's bidding.

Does the US' FBI really need tech companies to provide backdoors in their products to gain access to illegal material stored there? Apparently not...as long as members of the Geek Squad are willing to do the agency's bidding. 

Documents released the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) under a FOIA request “show that Best Buy officials have enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the agency for at least 10 years,” according to a blog post penned by EFF Staff Attorney Aaron Mackey, who wrote that a September 2008 FBI memo detailed “how Best Buy hosted a meeting of the agency's ‘Cyber Working Group' at the company's Kentucky repair facility.”

The memo and other documentation also revealed that the Louisville Division of the bureau “‘has maintained close liaison with the Geek Squad's management in an effort to glean case initiations and to support the division's Computer Intrusion and Cyber-Crime programs,'” Mackey wrote. 

The material provided to the EFF showed a US$ 500 (£362) payment to a confidential informant on the Geek Squad, apparently related to the case of a California doctor, Mark Rettenmaier, prosecuted for possession of child porn after his computer was sent by Best Buy to the Kentucky facility for repairs. 

Rettenmaier's case, which was eventually tossed, prompted the EFF's FOIA request last year. 

"We have learned that four employees may have received payment after turning over alleged child pornography to the FBI," Best Buy said in a statement sent to SC Media. "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."

Over the course of what appears to be a roughly 10-year relationship with the Geek Squad, EFF said, FBI agents worked out a process to investigate and prosecute those whose computers housed illegal material. Alerted by a Geek Squad employee, an FBI agent would review questionable material, seize the computer or hard drive and then forward to the FBI field office closest to the owner's home. 

“Agents at that local FBI office would then investigate further, and in some cases try to obtain a warrant to search the device,” the EFF said, noting that “the relationship potentially circumvents Computer owners' Fourth Amendment rights.”

Noting that it has "a moral and, in more than 20 states, a legal obligation to report these findings to law enforcement," a policy that it shares "with our customers in writing before we begin any repair," Best Buy said the company has "not sought or received training from law enforcement in how to search for child pornography."

According to company policy employees are prohibited "from doing anything other than what is necessary to solve the customer's problem," the company said, explaining that in the course of confirming that lost data has been recovered, employees do find "what appears to be child pornography on customers' computers nearly 100 times a year." 

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