By Aaron Kesel
The FBI paid Best Buy’s Geek Squad employees to act as informants, according to several documents obtained by the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The documents expose the cozy relationship between Best Buy and the FBI that goes back at least 10 years.
With the release of WikiLeaks Vault 7, everyone is talking about government surveillance again. It is déjà vu of Edward Snowden’s 2013 NSA release all over again.
Turns out the CIA and NSA aren’t the only ones spying on the population. The FBI was caught in 2017 using Best Buy’s Geek Squad to increase their own surveillance apparatus, and the details from unsealed court records are troubling.
The FBI and Geek Squad appear to have had a process for how the Bureau would investigate and prosecute people who had given their devices to Geek Squad to be repaired.
Geek Squad would let the FBI know if they found what they believed to be child pornography or other illegal content on a device and the FBI would go to the Geek Squad facility to assess the materials and determine if they were illegal, the documents reportedly show.
The FBI would then take the device for further investigation.
The documents show that Geek Squad would only call the FBI if they found possible illegal material during manual searches.
The issue came to light when a gynecologist named Mark Rettenmaier was indicted with two felony counts of possession of child pornography in November 2014 after Geek Squad discovered an image on his computer in the course of performing repairs that Rettenmaier paid for. As Techdirt reported:
According to court records, Geek Squad technician John “Trey” Westphal, an FBI informant, reported he accidentally located on Rettenmaier’s computer an image of “a fully nude, white prepubescent female on her hands and knees on a bed, with a brown choker-type collar around her neck.” Westphal notified his boss, Justin Meade, also an FBI informant, who alerted colleague Randall Ratliff, another FBI informant at Best Buy, as well as the FBI. Claiming the image met the definition of child pornography and was tied to a series of illicit pictures known as the “Jenny” shots, agent Tracey Riley said who seized the hard drive.
At the time, Best Buy released a statement that any employee who finds child pornography is required to report it to law enforcement.
‘If we discover child pornography in the normal course of servicing a computer, phone or tablet, we have an obligation to contact law enforcement. We believe this is the right thing to do, and we inform our customers before beginning any work that this is our policy,’ vice president for communications Jeff Haydock said. (Source)
However, the EFF’s argument in the case of Mark Rettenmaier — a California doctor who was charged with child pornography possession after Geek Squad employees say they discovered it on his computer, is that the documents show that Geek Squad employees made actual efforts to find the illegal material, potentially using forensic software to search his devices.
Further, there is evidence that Geek Squad employees were paid when they would find child pornography, which the EFF said would act to encourage the employees to actively search for the content. That changes the motivation from legal obligation to a chance to earn some additional extra cash by digging around in files that may not be essential to the repair, which is an obvious overreach.
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One of the documents obtained recorded a $500 payment from the FBI to a Geek Squad employee, OC Weekly reported. According to the EFF, this payment is one of the payments that has been linked to Rettenmaier’s case.
The released documents found that Best Buy had the FBI visit one of their repair facilities for the agency’s “Cyber Working Group” and that Geek Squad employees gave FBI officials a tour of the facilities.
One former agent confirms in her declaration that the employee who alerted the FBI to alleged child pornography found on the computer of the defendant in this case had been signed up by the FBI as a “confidential human source” (CHS) in 2009 two years before the offending content was discovered in this case but contends that this worker was “never asked” to “search for child pornography or evidence of any other crime on behalf of the FBI.”
However, in a December 19th order, in this case, the judge notes that emailed communications may hint at a deeper connection between the agency and the Geek Squad employee.
For instance, in Oct. 2009, this agent emailed the Best Buy staffer to set up a meeting “to discuss some other ideas for collaboration.” The since-retired agent now says she has no “independent recollection of what ‘collaboration’” refers to in that email, blaming her memory lapse on brain damage caused by Lyme disease.
The documents were released following an EFF Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2017.
The EFF has plans to challenge the FBI in court later this year for withholding other requested documents and refusing to answer questions about whether the agency had similar relationships with other computer repair companies.
What should be taken away from this is that the FBI directed Geek Squad to search through customers’ computers without probable cause.
There is also a very problematic scenario when you introduce any type of financial incentive. What if a Geek Squad employee decides to start planting child pornography on customers’ computers just to get paid?
Another issue is that malware can secretly implant files on the computer. There is malware that will implant child porn on a person’s computer, which is why that can’t be relied upon. A person’s own search history and capturing their IP address on a child porn site is more reliable than metadata.
That may be why a federal appellate court declared in February 2011 (USA v. Andrew Flyer) in an unrelated case that “pictures found on unallocated space did not constitute knowing possession because it is impossible to determine when, why or who downloaded them.”
Then there is the issue of a parent having a picture of their own child in the bathtub or something of a similar nature on the computer and the Geek Squad agent falsely accusing someone by reporting them to the FBI. And what if a customer has legal pornographic images of a girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, or wife– it’s a severe invasion of privacy.
However, in this case, during a search of Rettenmaier’s seized iPhone, prosecutors say the phone contained more than 800 pictures of naked or partially nude girls including some taken during gynecological exams, the LA Times reported.
What more should we take away from this? This case will set a precedent, and whether you think the individual is a sick child predator doesn’t matter because this will affect your own rights, too.
While Activist Post doesn’t have any sympathy for pedophiles and purveyors of child pornography, we worry about how the information was obtained by agents at Best Buy without a warrant, as this is a violation of the Fourth Amendment which protects against “illegal search and seizure.”