FBI Documents Show More Evidence Of Agency's Sketchy Relationship With Best Buy's Geek Squad
from the squadders-installing-FBI-bloatware dept
Thanks to an FOIA lawsuit, the FBI has finally started handing over documents to the EFF detailing the federal agency’s “partnership” with Best Buy Geek Squad employees. The too-cozy-to-be-Fourth-Amendment-compliant relationship was uncovered during discovery in a child porn prosecution. Produced documents showed the FBI not only paid Geek Squad members to search for child porn, but it actively engaged in recruiting efforts at Best Buy locations.
The problem with this relationship is the relationship. And the money. While tech repair personnel are expected to turn over discovered child porn to authorities, the active efforts of the FBI alter the incentives, pushing Geek Squad members towards digging through customers’ computers for illicit material, rather than simply reporting what they come across during the course of their work.
The FBI wants to keep this relationship with Best Buy intact. It also wants to keep the evidence provided by Geek Squad members. While private searches can be used to predicate investigations, paying people to look for illegal material when their job is to repair devices turns this into a proxy search for federal law enforcement. That’s not permitted under the Fourth Amendment and the FBI certainly knows it. The files central to this prosecution were discovered in unallocated space, making it unlikely they were discovered during routine repairs. It would imply a Geek Squad member went digging for illicit material, motivated by a possible payout from the FBI if anything was found.
The documents obtained by the EFF provide further evidence the FBI paid Geek Squad members to perform searches for it. They also show this relationship dates back at least a decade, with Best Buy doing its best to become an unofficial branch of the FBI.
The documents released to EFF show that Best Buy officials have enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the agency for at least 10 years. For example, an FBI memo from September 2008 details how Best Buy hosted a meeting of the agency’s “Cyber Working Group” at the company’s Kentucky repair facility.
The memo and a related email show that Geek Squad employees also gave FBI officials a tour of the facility before their meeting and 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.”
This relationship has been the basis for several FBI investigations — all predicated on actions that stray close to the edge of the Fourth Amendment, if not going past its boundaries completely.
Other documents show that over the years of working with Geek Squad employees, FBI agents developed a process for investigating and prosecuting people who sent their devices to the Geek Squad for repairs. The documents detail a series of FBI investigations in which a Geek Squad employee would call the FBI’s Louisville field office after finding what they believed was child pornography.
Some of these reports indicate that the FBI treated Geek Squad employees as informants, identifying them as “CHS,” which is shorthand for confidential human sources. In other cases, the FBI identifies the initial calls as coming from Best Buy employees, raising questions as to whether certain employees had different relationships with the FBI.
More information about this misuse of private searches will likely find its way into open court and the public domain in the next several years. The FBI is still withholding several files, which probably further corroborate the agency’s incentivizing of invasive device searches. And Best Buy is likely not the only company offering both computer repairs and FBI-prompted “private searches” The EFF notes the FBI refuses to confirm or deny it has a similar relationship with other retailers.
The EFF is headed back to court to challenge the FBI’s withholding of these documents, so additional documents may be produced sooner than later. But if the FBI can convince the court its payouts to tech repair staff are investigative methods that would be compromised if discussed publicly, we may see nothing at all. But it also has to convince another court its use of Best Buy employees as informants is kosher under the Fourth Amendment. And it has yet to do that.