New documents released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) show that the FBI Louisville field office has been paying the Best Buy Geek Squad as informants for over a decade. The Geek Squad, based out of Kentucky, has been violating their customers’ constitutional rights by secretly handing over data found on customer computers to the FBI if they are suspected of possessing illegal material, for example, child pornography.
It is not until after the FBI receives suspected illegal material from the Geek Squad that they further investigate by sending the information to other FBI field offices where, in some cases, warrants are finally obtained. Evidence indicates that the FBI has identified Geek Squad employees as confidential human sources, or “CHS” and that at least four Geek Squad CHS were paid $500 each for their “services” to the FBI.
In 2016, a California doctor, Mark Rettenmaier, was prosecuted for child pornography found on his computer after Geek Squad had worked on it to provide data recovery services. 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, which suggested that, “it circumvents computer owners’ Fourth Amendment right.” The Fourth Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to provide citizens with the right to privacy, including protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. The search of customers’ computers by Geek Squad is a clear violation of this right because they were warrantless searches at the direction of the FBI.
The judge in Rettenmaier’s case threw out the evidence.
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 images in an “unallocated space,” usually meaning forensic software was required to locate them.
For over a decade, there was no corporate media coverage on the relationship between Best Buy’s Geek Squad and the FBI; US citizens remain unaware that by entrusting Geek Squad to fix their computer glitches, they were made vulnerable to searches for incriminating materials on their devices. Rettenmaier’s prosecution drew attention to the relationship between Best Buy’s Geek Squad and FBI, which received coverage from corporate sources including Fortune magazine and the Washington Post.
Aaron Mackey, “Geek Squad’s Relationship with FBI Is Cozier Than We Thought,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, March 8, 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 International, March 7, 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)