Agency "assigned" technicians to conduct warrantless computer searches.
New federal court filings analyzed by the Orange County Weekly reveal a deeper relationship than previously understood between the FBI and members of Best Buy’s Geek Squad. The documents include information about the long-term training and management of Geek Squad staff as FBI informants, who used their access to customers’ computers to actively search for illegal material, primarily child pornography.
The FBI had previously acknowledged a program that paid Best Buy employees $500 for tips about child pornography. Even that arrangement was alarming from a civil liberties and privacy perspective, but it was apparently only the tip of the iceberg. OC Weekly’s R. Scott Moxley characterizes the more extensive program shown in the new filings as an effort “to sidestep the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against warrantless invasions of private property.”
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Rather than just offering one-off rewards for tips, the FBI appears to have cultivated ongoing relationships with some Geek Squad staffers. OC Weekly particularly highlights the case of Geek Squad supervisor Justin Meade, who according to the FBI documents received “assignments” and provided “valuable information” consistently over “several years” thanks to his “excellent and frequent” access to the computers of Best Buy customers. Some FBI agents wanted to “schedule regular meetings” with Meade, and for him to be “tasked” to do even more searches.
The documents also reportedly show that the FBI made plans to train Geek Squad staff to recognize the sorts of images the FBI wanted them to look for on customers’ computers, and Best Buy staffers even contemplated ways to automate their searches. The program was apparently not confined to California, as one memo makes reference to a “close liaison” between the FBI and Geek Squad management in Louisville, Kentucky.
The documents, which Fortune has not seen directly, were entered into evidence by a defense attorney in the troubled prosecution of a California doctor accused of possessing child pornography. The material in question was initially discovered by a Geek Squad technician servicing the doctor’s computer in 2011. The defense has argued that Geek Squad staff were acting as de facto government agents, making any evidence they uncovered without a warrant inadmissible.
While Best Buy in a January statement acknowledged its obligation to report illegal material discovered “in the normal course of servicing a computer, phone or tablet,” it has denied cooperating with the FBI in searching customers’ computers. In January, a spokesperson said that staffers accepting payment from authorities to inform on customers “would violate company policy,” calling it “purely poor individual judgment.”
Though the new documents refer to contact between the FBI and Geek Squad “management,” it would be surprising if this meant corporate-level leaders. Best Buy, much like Apple and other technology companies, has a strong business motivation to protect customer privacy. The Geek Squad has been described by Best Buy leadership as a key part of the chain’s survival as a retailer in the age of Amazon, and public awareness that the friendly mobile IT support team could also be FBI snoops would be nothing short of devastating to that strategy.