The Justice Department was sued Wednesday by a privacy group seeking information on the FBI recruitment of Best Buy employees to search consumer computers for child pornography during repairs — a practice that came to light in court documents in a recent case in Santa Ana, California.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Trump administration’s Justice Department, demanding access to records about any FBI training and payment to Geek Squad workers to search customer computers without a court warrant.
Best Buy spokesman Jeff Shelman said in a written statement that “Geek Squad does not work for the FBI and never has.”
At issue isn’t the criminality of child pornography or efforts to stop the exploitation of children by sexual predators. EFF is concerned that the FBI may be violating the constitutional requirement that law enforcement agencies obtain judge-approved search warrants, based on evidence there is probable cause of a crime, to search computers.
“Informants who are trained, directed, and paid by the FBI to conduct searches for the agency are acting as government agents,” EFF civil liberties director David Greene said in a written statement. “The FBI cannot bypass the Constitution’s warrant requirement by having its informants search people’s computers at its direction and command.”
Best Buy spokesman Shelman said that the company “learned that four employees may have received payment after turning over alleged child pornography to the FBI,” which “was in very poor judgement and inconsistent with our training and policies.” Three of the workers “are no longer with the company and the fourth has been reprimanded and reassigned,” he said.
Shelman said that Geek Squad employees do not search for any material on customer computers, and only inform law enforcement if workers inadvertently discover apparent child pornography during repairs, as is required by some states.
EFF, a San Francisco-based nonprofit privacy group, sued the Justice Department after the government refused a request for documents about how the FBI recruits, trains and pays Best Buy workers to find illegal child pornography on customer computers sent to Best Buy for repairs.
“The public has a right to know how the FBI uses computer repair technicians to carry out searches the agents themselves cannot do without a warrant,” EFF senior counsel David Sobel said in a statement. “People authorize Best Buy employees to fix their computers, not conduct unconstitutional searches on the FBI’s behalf.”
The FBI refused to provide records to EFF, citing the agency’s policy of not confirming or denying ongoing investigations.
But court documents in federal court in Santa Ana, California, argue that the FBI has launched a program of training and paying Geek Squad employees to look for child pornography on customer computers sent in for repairs, and to report the porn to authorities.
The OC Weekly first reported in March that court documents revealed an “extensive secret relationship . . . between the FBI and Best Buy’s Geek Squad, including evidence the agency trained company technicians on law-enforcement operational tactics, shared lists of targeted citizens and, to covertly increase surveillance of the public, encouraged searches of computers even when unrelated to a customer’s request for repairs.”
The relationship between the FBI and Best Buy came to light in the criminal case of U.S. v. Rettenmaier.
Dr. Mark Rettenmaier, a Newport Beach, California obstetrics and gynecology specialist, is charged with knowingly possessing child pornography after Geek Squad employees reported to authorities that they allegedly found an illicit image during repairs of his computer in 2011. The criminal case was delayed after Rettenmair
challenged the search of his computer and his home.
Rettenmaier’s lawyers argue that sealed government documents reveal the FBI trained and paid Geek Squad employees, turning them into FBI agents, and therefore would have required a search warrant before Geek Squad employees could search the doctor’s computer, according court documents cited by the Washington Post.
Prosecutors disagree, noting that authorities obtained a search warrant for the doctor’s computer and home after Best Buy employees reported alleged evidence of child pornography to authorities. The warrant-enabled search led to the discovery of “thousands of images of child pornography,” according to a brief by assistant U.S. attorneys Anthony Brown and Gregory Scally.
“The Fourth Amendment is offended by none of this,” federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing. “Nothing unreasonable occurred here, and there was no arbitrary invasion of anyone’s privacy by governmental officials… and there’s not a shred of evidence that anyone at the FBI directed anyone at Geek Squad City to detect and locate child pornography.”