Documents released in a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that the FBI used computer technicians from electronic retailer Best Buy’s “Geek Squad” as informants. The Bureau would pay the computer repair service for flagging illegal materials on customers’ computers found in the course of their repair, documents show. The relationship has reportedly existed for ten years.
Technicians would call FBI agents when they found what appeared to be child pornography, for example, during searches of computers. Agents would then come to Geek Squad facilities to inspect the material and assess its legality. If it was found to be illegal, the FBI would confiscate the device.
The documents were obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit, cyber-abuse watchdog that sued the FBI for records after it was revealed in a federal prosecution of a California doctor that the FBI was using the computer-repair service as informants.
That doctor, Mark A. Rettenmaier, an Orange County physician and surgeon, took his laptop into a Best Buy location for repair, unable to boot it up. While attempting to fix the machine, a service rep discovered a nude picture of a female child in the computer’s files. The machine was ultimately sent to Best Buy’s main repair facility in Kentucky, where it was eventually seized. Charges against Rettenmaier were subsequently brought.
The case raised questions however of just how proactive Geek Squad technicians were in their searches. In the case of Rettenmaier’s machine, the illegal material was found on an “unallocated” trash space, which means it could only be discovered by “file carving,” a sophisticated process that reassembles files on a computer using advanced forensic tools.
The revelation points to a proactive policy of inspections for illegal content rather than incidental discovery technicians may make in the course of their repairs. The paying of technicians, as much as $500 in one instance, may provide a financial incentive for the tech repair agents to conduct inspections.
EFF plans to challenge the FBI in court again later this spring over the release of documents that reveal, among other things, whether the FBI has similar relationships with other tech-repair companies.