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The FBI has tapped Best Buy’s Geek Squad employees as informants for more than a decade, according to a report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The unlikely partnership has reportedly developed a process over the years for investigating and prosecuting people who send their laptops in for repair.
The non-profit received the information through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit it filed last year after the defendant in a 2016 child pornography case accused the FBI of paying Geek Squad tech to look for evidence of illegal activity. Best Buy vehemently denied the allegations at the time, claiming Geek Squad employees have “no relationship” with the FBI but would report illegal findings like child pornography. A public relations director at Best Buy told the Daily Dot in June that Geek Squad employees “inadvertently” uncover “what appears to be child pornography” nearly 100 times a year.
“Any circumstances in which an employee received payment from the FBI is the result of extremely poor individual judgment, is not something we tolerate and is certainly not a part of our normal business behavior,” the company wrote in a past statement.
The EFF report suggests Best Buy was in on the act and even has a “particularly close relationship with the agency.” The electronics chain reportedly hosted a meeting with the FBI’s “Cyber Working Group” at its Kentucky repair facility in 2008. During the meeting, the feds were given a tour of the facility. One document reveals the FBI sent $500 to a Geek Squad employee for reporting pornography in the case that prompted the FOIA report.
The relationship between Geek Squad and the FBI led to a process for reporting illegal activity. A Geek Squad employee, who the FBI calls “CHS” or confidential human sources, would call up the FBI’s Louisville, Kentucky, field office after finding what they believed was child pornography. The FBI would travel to the Geek Squad facility, review the images or videos, and seize the hard drive or computer. The hardware would then be sent to another field office near where the owner lived. There, the FBI would try to obtain a search warrant.
The report also suggests some Geek Squad workers, perhaps hoping to win the favor of the FBI, actively search through computers looking for illegal content. While documents show that Geek Squad workers are tasked by the FBI to only report content they happen to come across, evidence in the California case suggests not all technicians follow those guidelines. In the case, one image was discovered in an unallocated space of the laptop that requires forensics software to access.
The EFF asserts the FBI’s use of Best Buy employees to search computers is in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The organization also says the FBI withheld a number of documents in its response to the FOIA suit and would not confirm whether it has similar relationships with other repair services.
We have reached out to Best Buy and will update this article if we hear back.
Update 12:45pm CT, March 7: A Best Buy spokesperson provided the Daily Dot with the company’s official statement on the matter. In it, Best Buy denies receiving training from law enforcement on how to search for child pornography. It also claims its employees don’t actively search for illegal content on customer laptops.
However, the company admits four employees received payments from the FBI after turning in illegal photos or videos. Three of them were let go and the fourth has been “reprimanded and reassigned.”
You can read the full statement here:
“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.”
Phillip Tracy is a former technology staff writer at the Daily Dot. He's an expert on smartphones, social media trends, and gadgets. He previously reported on IoT and telecom for RCR Wireless News and contributed to NewBay Media magazine. He now writes for Laptop magazine.