It’s not unusual for companies in America to be caught between what they view as being in the best interest of their customers and being required to comply with various federal statues. In the immediate aftermath of Edward Snowden’s FBI leaks, we discovered that a number of companies had silently fought against the government’s use of warrantless wiretapping without success. Apple was willing to engage in a high-profile fight with the FBI over user privacy several years ago, and Microsoft is caught in a high stakes battle over whether the US government can compel it to turn over the data of an EU national stored on a server located in the European Union. There are many situations in which corporations cooperate with government in certain scenarios and oppose them in others, and any serious attempt to grapple with the relationship between corporations and the federal government has to account for both of these trends.
Unless, that is, we’re discussing Best Buy’s Geek Squad and the FBI. New documents from the EFF have illustrated that the relationship between those two organizations may be chummy to the point of unconstitutionality.
The EFF filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request in 2017 to probe the relationship between Best Buy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after an ongoing court case revealed FBI agents were tipped off to the presence of child pornography on a consumer laptop by repair technicians working for Geek Squad. This wasn’t just a one-time communication. In the same case, the FBI admitted to cultivating eight confidential, paid sources within Geek Squad. Payment amounts and frequency were not disclosed, beyond one $500 payment to a supervisor.
This raises the question: Were the Geek Squad employees individuals performing a civic duty (as GS, BB, and the FBI argue), or were they acting as agents of the government and performing warrantless searches on individual property in possible violation of the Fourth Amendment?
Best Buy wasted no time staking out its own position. Spokesperson Jeff Shelman stated at the time, “Best Buy and Geek Squad have no relationship with the FBI. From time to time, our repair agents discover material that may be child pornography and we have 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 contents of the EFF’s FOIA blow a hole in that statement, to put it mildly.
For at least the past ten years, the FBI and Best Buy have enjoyed a cozy relationship, with BB hosting a “Cyber Working Group” meeting at the company’s Geek Squad repair facility in Kentucky back in 2008. The memo notes that the FBI “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.” The collaboration between the two organizations was close enough that the FBI developed a process for investigating and prosecuting people who sent devices in to Geek Squad for repair. After the Geek Squad agent flagged potentially illegal content, the FBI would investigate the material, seize the device, and then follow up with a local field office to obtain a warrant to search the device.
In some cases, Geek Squad employees appear to notify the FBI when they find possibly illegal content. In others, they identify finding such material in unallocated space on a hard drive, which could be evidence that GS agents were acting on behalf of the FBI — or it could just be evidence of a data recovery technician doing their job.
It’s possible these contacts between Geek Squad and various FBI field offices were entirely above board. But Best Buy’s denial of any relationship with the FBI is clearly false. The documents turned over to the EFF depict a longstanding relationship going back years.
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