14 FBI Paid Geek Squad Employees as “Confidential Human Source” Informants

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

New documents released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) show that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Louisville field officers have been paying Best Buy Geek Squad employees as informants for more than a decade. A Geek Squad facility in Kentucky has been violating customers’ constitutional rights by secretly handing over data found on customer computers to the FBI whenever employees suspected customers of possessing illegal material, such as child pornography. Evidence indicates that the FBI treated Geek Squad employees as confidential human sources, or “CHS,” and that at least four Geek Squad CHS were paid for their “services” to the FBI.

In 2014, a California doctor, Mark Rettenmaier, was prosecuted for child pornography found on his computer after the Geek Squad had worked on it. The EFF filed a Freedom of Information request in May 2017 to gain a better understanding of the Geek Squad’s relationship with the FBI, since such a partnership “potentially circumvents computer owners’ Fourth Amendment rights.” The Fourth Amendment protects citizens’ right to privacy, including protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. The searches of customers’ computers by the Geek Squad are a clear violation of this right because they constituted warrantless searches at the direction of the FBI.

The judge in Rettenmaier’s case dismissed the child pornography charges after throwing out much of the evidence collected by investigators due to “false and misleading statements” made by an FBI agent.

Best Buy argued that the company has a moral obligation to report their findings to the FBI and that their employees do not actively seek out illegal material. However, evidence from the case shows that Geek Squad employees who worked on Rettenmaier’s computer found the questionable image in an “unallocated space,” meaning that forensic software was likely required to locate it.

For more than a decade, there was no corporate media coverage on the relationship between Best Buy’s Geek Squad and the FBI; US citizens remained unaware that entrusting the Geek Squad with their computers made them vulnerable to searches for incriminating materials. Rettenmaier’s prosecution drew attention to the relationship between Best Buy’s Geek Squad and the FBI, which in turn spurred some coverage from corporate sources, including Fortune magazine, with coverage derived from the EFF report, and the Washington Post.

Aaron Mackey, “Geek Squad’s Relationship with FBI is Cozier Than We Thought,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, March 6, 2018, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2018/03/geek-squads-relationship-fbi-cozier-we-thought.

“Sneak Squad: FBI Paid Geek Squad Staff as Informants, New Documents Reveal,” RT, March 7, 2018, updated March 8, 2018, https://www.rt.com/usa/420758-geek-squad-fbi-eff.

Student Researcher: Dominique Boccanfuso (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)