The FBI’s previously reported relationship with Best Buy’s Geek Squad appears to be even more cozy than first thought, according to new documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The influential digital privacy rights group learned the extent the country’s top law enforcement agency coordinated with Best Buy and its tech support arm, through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit,
For instance, the EFF says the documents show a collaboration lasting 10 years, and Best Buy “hosted a meeting of the agency’s ‘Cyber Working Group’ at the company’s Kentucky repair facility” where the issue of the two parties’ connection first arose.
“The relationship potentially circumvents computer owners’ Fourth Amendment rights,” reads EFF’s blog post announcing its findings. It continues:
The memo and a related email show that Geek Squad employees also gave FBI officials a tour of the facility before their meeting and makes clear that the law enforcement agency’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.’
Acquired records also allegedly show a $500 payment from the FBI to an anonymous Geek Squad employee, making the employees seem like discreet informants.
When customers hand in their devices to the electronics retailer, they typically expect a degree of privacy, but may not be afforded such. The third-party doctrine, for example, states that people who voluntarily give information to other entities — like internet service providers, financial institutions, and, in this case, technical support — “have no reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Often, IT workers are tasked with recovering lost data from customers’ devices and occasionally stumble upon illegal content, like pornography that includes minors.
Mark Rettenmaier, a California doctor, was federally charged with having a hard drive that illegally contained child pornography after Best Buy handed off his computer to the Kentucky Geek Squad repair facility, which then reportedly gave access to federal authorities.
But privacy advocates are presumably concerned that Geek Squad is allowing the FBI to investigate and prosecute people who aren’t committing felonies like child pornography, a crime given way less protections in legal action and proceedings. Also, they worry that federal agencies are using privately owned computer repair services and facilities as informants, or even worse, proxy law enforcement agents.
“The FBI has refused to confirm or deny to EFF whether it has similar relationships with other computer repair facilities or businesses, despite our FOIA specifically requesting those records,” EFF continues. “The FBI has also failed to produce documents that would show whether the agency has any internal procedures or training materials that govern when agents seek to cultivate informants at computer repair facilities.”
EFF says it plans to continue legal battles to get the additional information it has requested on FBI’s official protocol for such investigations.
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