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A major internet rights advocacy organization is suing the Department of Justice alleging that the FBI used Best Buy’s computer repair service Geek Squad to search people’s computers without warrants.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) complaint in federal court in Washington, D.C., earlier this week. The search for documents was sparked by court records of a child pornography case in California where it was revealed that the FBI had been cultivating informants in Best Buy’s Geek Squad in Kentucky, according to EFF.
The Geek Squad employees would search devices for child pornography, EFF said, and receive payment from the FBI. No warrants were issued for the searches, according to EFF.
“Informants who are trained, directed, and paid by the FBI to conduct searches for the agency are acting as government agents,” David Greene, EFF’s civil liberties director, said in a statement. “The FBI cannot bypass the Constitution’s warrant requirement by having its informants search people’s computers at its direction and command.”
The FBI told the Daily Dot it does not comment on pending litigation. The Department of Justice declined our request to comment.
Earlier this year the EFF filed several FOIA requests for records containing information about informants at Best Buy facilities or documentation of training of Best Buy employees to search for child pornography on computers brought to stores for repair.
The FBI denied EFF’s request in April, according to the suit, claiming its policy is to neither “confirm nor deny the existence of records which would tend to indicate or reveal whether an individual or organization is of investigatory interest to the FBI.”
The EFF appealed the FBI’s denial of handing over the records and did not receive a response, according to the suit. The lawsuit alleges that the FBI wrongfully withheld public records and denied requests to waive fees associated with the request.
FOIA requires federal agencies to respond to requests within a certain time period. Lawsuits are often used as an enforcement mechanism for the largely toothless law.
The use of Best Buy employees to search computers for the FBI without a warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, EFF asserts.
We're suing the FBI to learn how it uses Best Buy Geek Squad informants to search devices without a warrant https://t.co/CxjaoMCYnb— EFF (@EFF) May 31, 2017
“The public has a right to know how the FBI uses computer repair technicians to carry out searches the agents themselves cannot do without a warrant,” David Sobel, EFF’s senior counsel, said in a statement. “People authorize Best Buy employees to fix their computers, not conduct unconstitutional searches on the FBI’s behalf.”
Paula Baldwin, a public relations director at Best Buy, told the Daily Dot that Geek Squad employees “inadvertently” uncover “what appears to be child pornography” nearly 100 times a year while repairing customer computers.
Baldwin said the company has a “moral, and in more than 20 states, a legal obligation” to report the discovery.
“To be clear: Geek Squad does not work for the FBI and never has,” Baldwin said in an email.
Best Buy discovered that four employees “may have” received payment after turning over alleged child pornography to the FBI, Baldwin said.
“Any decision to accept payment was in very poor judgement and inconsistent with our training and policies,” Baldwin said. “Three of these employees are no longer with the company and the fourth has been reprimanded and reassigned.”
You can read the EFF’s complaint here.
Update 11:53am CT, June 2: Added comment from a Best Buy spokesperson.
Update 12:16pm CT, June 2: DOJ declined to comment.
Andrew Wyrich is a politics staff writer for the Daily Dot, covering the intersection of politics and the internet. Andrew has written for USA Today, NorthJersey.com, and other newspapers and websites. His work has been recognized by the Society of the Silurians, Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).