Data privacy: The child porn case involving Best Buy's Geek Squad and FBI informants

A doctor who handed in his laptop to the Geek Squad soon received a visit from the FBI.
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When you hand over your laptop for repair by Best Buy's Geek Squad, how much privacy are you entitled to?

That's the question being answered in a court case in California, with a raft of court documents publicly released this week. They reveal the extent of a link between the Richfield-based company's tech experts and the FBI.

Lawyers for a doctor charged with federal crime porn offenses say they found what the Washington Post describes as "a small cadre of informants" working within Best Buy's computer repair service; and claim those informants pass on any child pornography they find on computers they're fixing.

The FBI is believed to have cultivated "eight confidential human sources" in the Geek Squad over a period four years, and according to the sworn testimony from one of them, they received a $500 payment from an FBI agent in 2011 for a tip they gave.

This informant and other Best Buy staffers did go on to say it's not their policy to actively seek out illegal content on devices, and that they never received direct communications from the FBI at the Geek Squad HQ in Kentucky, Consumerist notes.

What's the big deal?

The hearing in the case of Mark Rettenmaier starts Wednesday, and the reason it's significant is because it will look at how much right to privacy Best Buy customers are giving away when they hand over their devices to the Geek Squad.

As the Washington Post notes, Best Buy is legally entitled to search the computer as the customer authorized. However, if Best Buy is operating in conjunction with an arm of the government, then a warrant or specific consent is needed.

The OC Weekly reports that after the hard drive on the HP computer belonging to Rettenmaier – a prominent Orange County physician – was passed to the FBI, defense attorneys claim agents conducted two additional searches of the computer without having the necessary warrants.

The FBI and Justice Department have not commented on the case.

Best Buy: No relationship with FBI

On Monday, Best Buy issued a statement denying Geek Squad has any kind of relationship with the FBI. But the company admits it sometimes passes on child porn that repair agents find on the computers they're fixing as part of a "legal and moral obligation to turn that material over to law enforcement."

"We are proud of our policy and share it with our customers before we begin any repair," the statement said.

It continued:

"To be clear, our agents unintentionally find child pornography as they try to make the repairs the customer is paying for. They are not looking for it. Our policies prohibit agents from doing anything other than what is necessary to solve the customer’s problem so that we can maintain their privacy and keep up with the volume of repairs."

The company also said any employee who accepts payments from the FBI is showing "extremely poor individual judgement," adding it's "not a part of our normal business behavior."

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