Here’s What We Know About the FBI’s Alleged Use of Best Buy Employees as Informants
The story isn’t a new one, but it’s back in the news cycle this week because the relationship between the FBI and Best Buy’s Geek Squad was placed under the microscope in court this week.
Here’s a little background info on the case before we dive into this thing:
It all boils down to evidence being used in a child-pornography-possession case in Orange County, California. Mark A. Rettenmaier, a prominent local physician and surgeon, was having trouble with his HP Pavilion desktop computer and sought the assistance of his local Best Buy Geek Squad team. The computer ended up making its way to a Brooks, Kentucky Geek Squad field location where employees there uncovered the material in question and handed it over to the FBI—something that, according to Best Buy policy, they’re required to do. However, what the public has learned in the months since the case was brought to trial is that these Best Buy employees have routinely searched computer that have come across their stations for files that could earn them “$500 windfalls as FBI informants.”
Further complicating matters in the case, the child pornography files were found in an area of the computer where unallocated “trash” was stored, meaning “it could only be retrieved by ‘carving’ with costly, highly sophisticated forensics tools. In other words, it's arguable a computer's owner wouldn't know of its existence.”
There are other issues surrounding the case including shoddy investigative tactics, missing warrants, and more. But we’ll look past all of that for the purposes of this story.
What’s most troubling in all of this is that Best Buy is (or at least several employees at this particular office are) working as an extension of the government. And, if these employees are getting paid for the information they come across, the searches could prove to be direct violations of a person’s 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
In a statement, Best Buy denied the accusations, saying it has no relationship with the FBI.
“From time to time, our repair agents discover material that may be child pornography, and we have a legal and moral obligation to turn that material over to law enforcement. We are proud of our policy and share it with our customers before we begin any repair,” the company said. “Any circumstances in which an employee received payment from the FBI is the result of extremely poor individual judgment, is not something we tolerate and is certainly not a part of our normal business behavior. ... Our policies prohibit agents from doing anything other than what is necessary to solve the customer’s problem so that we can maintain their privacy and keep up with the volume of repairs.”
To be clear, I don’t find anything wrong with the details around this case. If a Best Buy employee were to “accidentally” come across illegal materials on a user’s computer, I’d hope and pray that they do the right thing and hand it over to authorities. That’s not what I’m arguing here.
What I am arguing is that these employees shouldn’t be actively seeking this material knowing that they have the opportunity to make a few extra bucks off of the federal government. That essentially turns them into a branch of the FBI or CIA or NSA or whomever they happen to be informing for.
Privacy is the one topic that will continue to rear its ugly head as tech companies ask consumers to connect to more and more devices. Though we’re allowing companies greater access to our information and habits, there still needs to be certain reasonable expectation of privacy. Customer support centers like Geek Squad should understand that and operate in such a way that consumers don’t have to fear that their privacy is being violated. When I send something away for repair, I’d like to think that the person whose hands the device ends up in won’t go rummaging through every folder or area of the device just because they can, no matter what some waiver I sign has to say. That’s not what I’m paying them for.
And even if this was just a handful of employees at one offshoot Geek Squad facility, all of this begs the question: How many more Best Buy employees in locations around the country have been contacted by the FBI and offered similar incentives? There are some 20,000 Geek Squad employees alone. It’s a scary thought and one that could seriously hurt their credibility depending on how this case plays out.