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Best Buy’s Geek Squad and the FBI have been in bed together for a decade

Mar 07, 20184 mins

The FBI has been paying Geek Squad employees to act as informants, according to documents obtained by the EFF via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

For people who don’t know how to repair their computers, or don’t have family or friends to think of as their personal 24/7 computer expert and free repair person, they might turn to Best Buy’s Geek Squad to take care of a malware infection. But spyware might be the least of their worries if computer repair people are actually living, breathing spies working for the FBI.

The Geek Squad and the FBI have been working together for at least a decade. Even worse, the FBI has been paying Geek Squad employees to act as informants, according to documents obtained by the EFF via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

The EFF filed the lawsuit last year to learn more about the FBI’s use of Geek Squad employees to flag illegal material on computers they were hired to repair. At the time, the EFF said the FBI shouldn’t be able to use the Geek Squad to search customers’ devices and bypass their Fourth Amendment rights.

We first learned of the FBI using informants in Best Buy’s national repair facility in Kentucky via the prosecution of Dr. Mark Rettenmaier. A Best Buy technician searched the unallocated storage space on the device, found evidence of suspected child porn, and notified the FBI.

Geek Squad techs received $500 to $1,000 for being informants. The FBI could bypass getting probable cause warrants, arguing in court that there were no Fourth Amendment violations because the Geek Squad conducted the searches — searches customers had authorized.

Documents show Geek Squad and FBI collaborating for 10 years

The documents obtained by the EFF show that Best Buy’s Geek Squad and the FBI had been collaborating for at least 10 years.

One FBI memo, dated in September 2008, mentioned the Best Buy’s Geek Squad facility in Brooks, Kentucky, hosted the feds’ “Cyber Working Group” meeting. A related email, the EFF said, showed that Geek Squad employees gave FBI agents a tour of the facility.

It “makes clear that the law enforcement agency’s Louisville Division ‘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,’” the EFF said.

How the Geek Squad and FBI worked together

While one document is for the FBI’s $500 payment to a confidential Geek Squad informant, other documents detail the FBI’s process for investigating and prosecuting people who depended on the Geek Squad to repair their computers.

After receiving a call from the Geek Squad, the FBI would “show up, review the images or video, and determine whether they believe they are illegal content. After that, they would seize the hard drive or computer and send it to another FBI field office near where the owner of the device lived.”

Some documents revealed that the FBI was alerted when Geek Squad techs found illegal materials during manual searches of customers’ hard drives, but there is also evidence to suggest Geek Squad techs were going out of their way to find illegal content. For example, the image from Rettenmaier’s hard drive was found in an unallocated space that would likely require forensic software to find.

The EFF concluded:

Although these documents provide new details about the FBI’s connection to Geek Squad and its Kentucky repair facility, the FBI has withheld a number of other documents in response to our FOIA suit. Worse, the FBI has refused to confirm or deny to EFF whether it has similar relationships with other computer repair facilities or businesses, despite our FOIA specifically requesting those records. The FBI has also failed to produce documents that would show whether the agency has any internal procedures or training materials that govern when agents seek to cultivate informants at computer repair facilities.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.