The FBI paid Geek Squad employees as informants, enlisting them in procedures that EFF claims could circumvent computer owners' Fourth Amendment rights, according to documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation released to digital privacy organization Electronic Freedom Foundation through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
The documents reveal the extent of the relationship between Best Buy’s Geek Squad and the law enforcement agency in investigating potential possession of illegal child pornography, including payments to Geek Squad employees, according to a blog post from EFF. The relationship was more involved than previously believed, based on these reports.
Best Buy told Retail Dive in an email that its "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." Four employees who "may have received payment after turning over alleged child pornography to the FBI" did so "in very poor judgment 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."
The FBI and Best Buy have downplayed their relationship in the past, but materials released by EFF detail a fairly coordinated level of cooperation and the privacy organization said their cooperation goes back at least a decade. The organization released documents including one showing a $500 payment to a Geek Squad employee.
Best Buy has been adamant that its techs do not look for child pornography on computers, and report such discoveries only when they happen upon them. In fact, a Best Buy spokesperson said that is their duty, and that is made clear to customers whenever the Geek Squad works on their devices.
"We have a moral and, in more than 20 states, a legal obligation to report these findings to law enforcement," the spokesperson said. "We share this policy with our customers in writing before we begin any repair."
But EFF said that materials from the prosecution of Mark Rettenmaier, the California physician charged with possession of child pornography last year, show that at least some of the evidence would have required special software to locate on a hard drive. The FBI payments incentivize Geek Squad workers to actively look for illegal content, EFF said.
The idea that the government can and is spying on Americans in cahoots with Geek Squad techs could be a problem for Best Buy, especially if rivals can somehow capitalize on the reports by assuring consumers that their technicians maintain an iron-clad respect for their privacy. And it could slow down sales of increasingly popular connected home devices if consumers believe they’re loaded with stealth tools.
Americans are increasingly concerned about online privacy and security, including government surveillance in the Trump era, according to research last year from virtual private network and internet security firm AnchorFree. Some 84% said they’re more concerned about their online privacy than they were a year before, and 50% are more concerned about online privacy because of the increased number of connected technology devices that contain personal information, the study found.
The reports create an opening for the likes of Apple, which fought back against reports that it created "back door" access on phones for law enforcement, and in one high-profile case refused government access to an iPhone used by one of the attackers who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, CA in 2015. Concierge companies like Ron Johnson's Enjoy also could exploit the opportunity presented by the Geek Squad allegations.