The Volkswagen-driving nerds who promised to remove the virus from your computer and have it back by Friday are also skilled in the art of unmoisturized tattling: Newly uncovered documents show how Best Buy’s Geek Squad has been working undercover in the FBI’s Department of Dry Snitching for a decade at the very least.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Justice Department in May 2017 after physician Mark A. Rettenmaier was convicted of child pornography. Rettenmaier was reported by someone working at the Geek Squad’s Brooks, Ky., facility, where technicians repair computers of Best Buy customers from around the country.
The EFF sought to know if the informants simply stumbled across the data on the hard drive or if they had been directed and trained to do so. Civil liberties advocates argue that, if the Geek Squad workers are paid by the FBI, then searching computers without a warrant might be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. (That’s the one that protects against illegal search and seizure. Don’t worry, Donald Trump didn’t know it, either.)
What they found was startling. They discovered that Geek Squad workers, under the knowledge and direction of Best Buy, had been working with federal investigators for at least 10 years as “confidential human sources,” or CHS, rummaging through the hard drives of people who had not been arrested or convicted of a crime.
According to an unclassified FBI memo (pdf), in September 2008, the FBI held a meeting at the Best Buy Kentucky offices. The document boasted of the company’s cozy relationship with the FBI:
The Brooks facility repairs and conducts data recovery on thousands of computers every day. The [FBI’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 information obtained by the EFF shows the evolution of a detailed process that begins when workers find potentially illegal material on hard drives. The techs relay the information to the FBI, which then investigates the data and sends the information to a field office near the customer’s home for further investigation. However, it was the next step that is most important:
Then the FBI would sometimes obtain a warrant.
Even in cases that were not prosecuted, Best Buy employees would make exact copies of the hard drive on blank drives, CDs and flash drives and forward the borrowed data to the FBI. In most of the cases, the FBI notes made sure to specify that no warrant was obtained prior to the Snitch Squad’s search.
The documents noted that the feds rewarded the Geek Squad techs up to $500 for each time they found incriminating evidence. In at least one case, child pornography was gleaned from unallocated space on the drive. The Geek Squad somehow got the contents of the drive to the FBI despite the fact that, without forensic tools, the Geek Squad couldn’t have known that the material was on the drive; nor did they have any reason to inspect unallocated space.
The FBI, however, insisted that it did not instruct Best Buy employees to proactively search for information. If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’m going to scream, and I need a second to switch to all caps and italics:
THAT DOES NOT MAKE US FEEL BETTER!
We’re supposed to breathe a sigh of relief knowing that we could be arrested for something on our hard drives even if the FBI wasn’t investigating us? Seriously, why would you ever mention that part? The fact that Geek Squadders are paid to find any violation means they will search every computer they come across, in hopes of finding something illegal!
Do you know what people will do for $500? When I was in college, my friends and I drove to a party about an hour away. We didn’t have enough room for everyone, and one of our friends laughingly suggested that he’d ride in the trunk. Five of us chipped in $10 apiece and bet him he wouldn’t do it.
He took the bet.
Having a squad of paid informants is problematic in that it is possible that the Geek Squad could not only extract information but could ultimately plant information and files on someone’s hard drive.
The FBI did not release all of the documents, claiming that some were privileged information, so no one knows exactly how many customers’ computers Geek Squad employees rifled through. The FBI also refused to say whether or not this program exists at other Best Buy facilities or at any other private companies.
I’m just happy the Geek Squad doesn’t have a team roving around inspecting car trunks.