EFF: Records Show The FBI Paid Geek Squad Informants For Years

Last year, we learned that eight Geek Squad employees were being paid as informants by the FBI to report child pornography when they see it on their customers’ computers. The EFF then filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to learn more about this relationship between the FBI and Geek Squad employees. Now, new documents uncovered by the EFF show that the FBI and Geek Squad relationship was cozier than expected.

A 10 Year Relationship

One of the first documents the EFF uncovered showed that Best Buy invited the FBI for a “Cyber Working Group” at the company’s Kentucky repair facility, back in 2008. The Geek Squad employees also gave the FBI a tour of the facility before their meeting.

The memo the EFF got also made clear that the FBI’s Louisville Division “has maintained close liaison with the Geek Squad’s management in an effort to glean case initiations and to support the division’s Computer Intrusion and Cyber Crime programs.”

One of the documents unveiled that the FBI paid $500 to a Geek Squad informant who called the FBI about finding some potentially illegal images on the computer of Mark Rettenmaier, who is a doctor in California. Rettenmaier was later charged with possession of child pornography after Best Buy sent his computer to Geek Squad, its subsidiary, for repair.

According to the EFF, the documents also revealed that over the years of working with Geek Squad informants, the FBI has been developing a process for investigating and prosecuting people who sent their devices to Geek Squad for repairs.

Some of the documents seem to show that Geek Squad employees alert the FBI only when they find the images on a manual search of the device. However, other evidence in the Rettenmaier case does show that the Geek Squad employees made an affirmative effort to identify illegal content.

Rettenmaier’s alleged illegal content was found on the unallocated space of the drive, which means the Geek Squad employees must have done a forensic-type search to recover those deleted files.

Bypassing Fourth Amendment

The EFF argued before that if the FBI pays a private company’s employees to become informants or give the agency access to data of the company’s customers, then the FBI would in effect be bypassing the Fourth Amendment, which doesn’t allow the government to look through people’s “papers” and effects without a judicial warrant.

EFF’s documents do show that in some cases the FBI obtains a warrant to further analyze the device, but not always. Plus, by then, they would have already “fished” for the crime through other means, such as paying a company’s employees to look for the illegal content on their behalf.

With the passing of the recent FISA law, as well as President Obama’s rule change that allows 17 agencies to freely share data, the FBI is now also able to see someone’s unencrypted communications or privately shared or downloaded content long before it would need to use that evidence in court.

At that point, the agency would have to obtain a judicial warrant (a provision some Congress people have unsuccessfully tried to eliminate). However, the FBI would have already learned about the crime before the warrant was filed, meaning the Fourth Amendment’s protection against government crime “fishing expeditions” would no longer apply.

Best Buy's Statement

In a statement to Tom’s Hardware, Best Buy said that it hasn’t worked with the FBI at the company level to report illegal activities and that it doesn’t condone employees accepting money for reporting illegal content they may find on the customers' computers:

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.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • techy1966
    I see why they would want to catch poeple that are into child porn but at the same time if a person takes their computer in to be fixed they do not expect the tech to go hells bells trying to fry them to make a buck from being paid by the FBI. It is a total invasion of privacy and I am sure if more people knew about this Best buy and most likely other companies that are doing the same thing would be in a heap of trouble and open to several law suits. I say this beciase all we know about is the one thing the FBI paid money for to get peoples info what we do not know and most likely never know is just how far this goes and what else they are paying for to get information about us.
    Humans are horrible, and will gladly create false accusations if there is incentive to do so. (such a being paid and getting recognition)

    Humans are horrible, and will gladly murder you on someone else's orders. (Milgram experiment)

    Humans are horrible, and will gladly use morally repugnant and illegal activities to target you if they don't like you. (gang stalking)

    It seems that it is lost on many people that illegal search and seizure laws do not exist to protect you from getting caught from committing crimes, but infact exist to prevent you from being oppressed by a totalitarian government.

    When the government breaks these laws and then uses the excuse "but they did commit the crime" and you find yourself agreeing with them, it won't be long before the government boot is stamping on your face, for the rest of your life.
  • rashaunny
    How do I get notifications from your stories that just touch government and corporate malfeasance?
  • LeeRains
    What a <mod edit> up story. It makes absolutely everyone involved sound like incompetent law breakers. If the FBI was simply after child porn, why not meet with the “Geek Squad” and educate them on what to do upon finding child porn in the course of regular service? Nothing wrong with that. What’s with the payments?

    And it makes BestBuy look altogether, utterly incompetent if the FBI has to take things into their own hands (if this story is taken at face value).

    But what's with BestBuy’s statement?

    “In the wake of these allegations, we have redoubled our efforts to train employees on what to do — and not do — in these circumstances.”

    “AND NOT DO”? Is BestBuy *that* concerned with losing the business of people with child porn? (Much like Trump giving a silent nod to white suprematists and the like, no as not to lose their vote?)

    This just makes everyone look terrible. It’s hard to believe the FBI didn’t have ulterior motives too— because we all know how well they can monitor internet traffic with their pals in alphabet soup govnt agencies. Where are everyone’s priorities here?

    I normally side with the EFF, but this doesn’t appear to be a very clear black-and-white issue. Lots of gray poop smeared all over the place.
  • TJ Hooker
    20771317 said:
    But what's with BestBuy’s statement?

    “In the wake of these allegations, we have redoubled our efforts to train employees on what to do — and not do — in these circumstances.”

    “AND NOT DO”? Is BestBuy *that* concerned with losing the business of people with child porn?
    I think it's more about having their employees not go rooting around through your computer (including searching through deleted files) trying to dig up dirt irrespective of what you brought your PC in for. It's like bringing your car in for an oil change and finding out that the guys at the shop were searching through your glove compartment. Doesn't matter if you're doing anything illegal or not, people aren't going to be happy about that.
  • Math Geek
    i have personally handed over more than a dozen pc's to the feds that were brought to me for fixing. i don't go digging through looking for anything but if i turn your pc on and it has child porn for wallpaper, well i don't feel bad at all for turning it in.

    i have the contact card for my local agent who handles such cases and i call him whenever i find such terrible stuff. i've asked and been instructed on what to do when i find it and how to handle the pc until it's picked up by the feds. i don't bother with regular media files as i have no idea where they came from nor do i care. but if i run across any child porn while fixing a pc/mobile, all bets are off.

    i have never been payed for the info though. if they paying geek squad and others then i'm pretty sure someone owes me some cash. :)

    i feel the same way about this, however as many others are voicing. if they are scanning and deep diving for anything they can turn in, then i'd be against it 100%. but if they turn on your pc and you got a bunch of it sitting on your desktop, then all the power to them for turning it in. i make it clear with all my clients that i will happily turn in anyone who hands me a device with child porn on it!! and i don't apologize for that stance at all.
  • sykozis
    I have no issue with turning in people who have child pornography on their PC. However, given that people do buy computers second-hand, I do have issue with turning in someone after a data recovery process has completed. If data recovery software has been run on the computer, how does Geek Squad know for certain that the present owner of the computer is the one that downloaded the child porn? Maybe they bought the computer second-hand and the previous owner downloaded it... Not everything is as cut and dry as it appears. Also, there's no reason for Geek Squad employees to be going through someone's personal files, even after a data recovery attempt. That is something Best Buy needs to address. There's potential for criminal activity there.... I'm all for stopping these sick people, but things have to be done the right way. If someone is using child porn as a wallpaper, that's one thing. If it's recovered from a hard drive after being deleted, that's something completely different.

    Btw, if your vehicle has wheel locks and you're expecting your tires to get rotated when you get your oil changed, expect someone to go through your glove box and/or trunk. I had a friend that found a huge collection of child pornography in a customer's trunk because he had wheel locks on his car and his wheel lock key was in his trunk. So, either leave it in a cup holder or expect someone to go through your vehicle to find it.
  • LeeRains
    It’s nice to see here that there are people that don’t turn a blind eye out of apathy and/or greed. (And who also appear to use proper judgement as to what is legitimate evidence for the Feds to look at.) A little faith in humanity has been restored.
  • berezini
    why work for 10 dollars an hour when you can plant illegal materials on a customers computer than report it and get paid fast easy cash?

    P.S. Let's sell customer a "USER REFURBISHED" drive off ebay because its super cheap and plant some child porn on that then turn innocent people in to FBI.
  • JonDol
    20772339 said:
    why work for 10 dollars an hour when you can plant illegal materials on a customers computer than report it and get paid fast easy cash?

    That's what I was thinking about that Freak Squad. I'm also thinking about other even more interesting material such as commercial secrets/brevetable work that was uncovered during their "fixing"..