One computer arrived at a California Best Buy in Chula Vista. Another came from a South Brunswick, N.J., store. Others came from Best Buys in Fort Smith, Ark., and near Bloomington, Ill.
But they all contained the same thing — images of child pornography — and they all came to the attention of the FBI through informants working for Best Buy's Geek Squad of computer repair gurus.
That's according to FBI documents revealed through a records request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil rights group. The records show the FBI paid Geek Squad workers to flag illegal material found on the computers of Best Buy customers.
One Geek Squad worker received a $500 payment from the bureau, documents show, while a Best Buy facility in Kentucky — where the computers were sent for repair — once served as the venue for the meeting of an FBI cyber crimes group.
The question is whether the FBI's years-long relationship with Geek Squad employees sidesteps the computer owners' Fourth Amendment rights, the foundation said in a statement.
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures.
In a statement, Best Buy described any employee decisions to receive payments tied to the FBI as "in very poor judgement and inconsistent with our training and policies." Yet the company also noted that employees have "a moral and, in more than 20 states, a legal obligation" to report inadvertent findings of child pornography.
The company noted that of four employees who may have received payment, three had left the company and the fourth had been "reprimanded and reassigned."
The FBI declined to comment, citing an "ongoing legal matter.” The agency said it does not provide information on dealings with informants "for obvious reasons."
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the FBI also declined to state whether it had informants in employees of other computer repair businesses besides Best Buy.
One California attorney, James Riddet, told The Washington Post last year that the FBI's relationship with Best Buy effectively turned the company's searches into government searches.
"If they’re going to set up that network between Best Buy supervisors and FBI agents, you run the risk that Best Buy is a branch of the FBI," Riddet told the newspaper.
Riddet's client, a California doctor named Mark Rettenmaier, faced child pornography charges after a Geek Squad technician found a questionable image on his hard drive, which was sent to Best Buy's Kentucky facility after he sought repairs.
A federal judge eventually dismissed the charges, claiming a resulting warrant to search Rettenmaier's home stemmed from "false and misleading" information. The evidence found — hundreds of child pornography images, prosecutors said — was thrown out.
Contributing: Associated Press
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