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BestBuy, Geek Squad and The FBI

Francisco Saravia

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At a Geek Squad in Brooks, KY., Geek Squad like in any other city works on computers owned by people, accessing them to retrieve lost data. According to the Washington Post over several years, a handful of those workers have notified the FBI when they see signs of child pornography, earning payments from the agency.

Looks like this was revealed after a small group of informants within the country’s most popular computer repair services alerted the FBI about a hard drive that was being inspected. The case in California about a Doctor who is facing federal charges due to one of the technicians flagging the suspected hard drive. The Doctor’s lawyers found that the FBI had about 8 “confidential human sources” in the Geek Squad over a four-year period. According to a judge’s order in the case, with all of them receiving some type of payment. This also makes me wonder at how many other Geek Squad repair centers this is happening.

The case raises issues about privacy and the government use of informants. If a client turns over their computer for inspection and or repair, do they immediately forfeit their expectation of privacy, and their Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches? and if the Geek Squad or informant gets paid, does it compromise the credibility? or effectively convert them into an agent of the government?

When  a hired Geek Squad agent  is assigned to work on a computer it is completely legal – the customer authorized it, and the law apparently does not prohibit private searches. From my personal experience working at the Geek Squad there are a number of steps that go unsupervised by management. I could plug in your hard drive and look at your data, make copies, etc. In fact it is very common; especially if you are trying to retrieve data from the hard drive because the customer requested it and move it to a new hard drive. Which was probably one of the most common repairs I performed, because hard drives last about 5-7  years.

One would assume, that if Best Buy serves as an arm of the government (with paid informants), then a warrant or specific consent is needed.  A federal judge in the child pornography case against Mark Rettenmaier is going to allow the defense attorneys to prove the relationships between the FBI and Best Buy at a hearing in L.A starting Wednesday. Looks like the FBI and the Geek Squad have a very friendly relationship that it turns repairs by a Geek Squad Technician into a mass government searches.  If the informants move from 8 to 80, or too 800. Could it be that they are going to set up a informant network between private IT companies and the FBI ? Does this activity stop at Best Buy… what about other global communications companies like Facebook, Google, etc. It would be naive to think this activity isn’t happening at a bigger scale.

Best Buy spokesman Jeff Shelman said in a statement Monday that “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.” Shelman added, “Any circumstances in which an employee received payment from the FBI is the result of extremely poor individual judgment, is not something we tolerate and is certainly not a part of our normal business behavior.”

The case started in November 2011, when Rettenmaier, a gynecological oncologist in Orange County, Calif., took his HP Pavilion desktop to the Best Buy in Mission Viejo, Calif., because it wouldn’t boot up. The technicians at the store told him he had a faulty hard drive. If he wanted to retain information from the hard drive, he would need the Geek Squad’s data recovery services in Kentucky. Then Rettenmaier signed a service order that prosecutors argue “waived any right to raise a Fourth Amendment claim” because it contained the admonition: “I am on notice that any product containing child pornography will be turned over to the authorities.”

Rettenmaier’s hard drive was shipped to Geek Squad City in Brooks, Ky., a suburb of Louisville. In December 2011, one of Meade’s technicians located a photo that Riddet described as a nude prepubescent girl on a bed. In January 2012, court records show Meade emailed Agent Riley in Louisville and said, “We have another one out of California we want you to take a look at, when can you swing by?”

EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit last year to learn more about how the FBI uses Geek Squad employees to flag illegal material when people pay Best Buy to repair their computers. The relationship potentially circumvents computer owners’ Fourth Amendment rights.

This is where it gets interesting. The search of Rettenmaier’s hard drive has a further wrinkle. The image was located on “unallocated space,” which is where deleted items reside on a computer until they are overwritten when the space is needed. Unallocated space is not easily accessed — it requires special forensic software. Prosecutors said that the Geek Squad technician who searched the unallocated space was merely trying to recover all the data Rettenmaier had asked to be restored. Riddet argued that the technician was going beyond the regular search to deleted material to find evidence the FBI might want. In addition, a federal appeals court has ruled that pornography found on unallocated space is insufficient to prove that the user possessed it, since information about when it was accessed, altered or deleted is no longer available. “There was no evidence of how the contraband got onto Dr. Rettenmaier’s hard drive,” Riddet wrote, “and it could have gotten there before he possessed the computer or against his will.”

Although these documents provide new details about the FBI’s connection to Geek Squad and its Kentucky repair facility, the FBI has withheld a number of other documents in response to our FOIA suit. Worse, 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. 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.

Stan Goldman, a law professor at Loyola Law School, likened Best Buy’s search to the “plain view” doctrine for police: If officers can see something in plain view, they have reason to search or seize it. “Whatever they see while searching within the scope of what they were asked to do would be admissible, in my view,” Goldman said. “If they start searching on their own, they’ve gone beyond what is ‘plain view.’ ” He said what a customer consents to when ordering the work is crucial. “Have people actually understood that they’ve agreed to have their entire computer searched? I don’t think so, but you can’t be 100 percent certain.” You can read the case documents produced so far here and here. Quotes and data Source.

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I am a driven, curious, and innovative bilingual technologist and serial entrepreneur. Passionate about technology and how the web, social media, computer and mobile devices work together. Beta tester for Google Maps, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Google, Facebook, Instagram and Android System Webview which is driving progressive web apps & android instant apps. Co-Founder of FitTube, SpringfieldDaily & SpringfieldAuction + many more!

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LIVE | Springfield City Council committee of the whole Dec. 11th

Staff Contributor

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Follow along live with the Springfield City Council’s committee of the whole meeting for December 11th.

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LIVE | Springfield City Council Meeting December 4th

Staff Contributor

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Follow along live with the Springfield City Council meeting for December 4th. There is a presentation by EmberClear about a proposed gas-fired plant.

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Bustos’ American-made flag bill passes in the House

Thomas Clatterbuck

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In 2015, the Federal government spent $4.4 million on foreign-made American flags. Almost all of these flags, which were used by the Department of Defense, came from China. Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos was appalled when she learned this from a veteran. Under current law, flags only need to be made of 50 percent American-made materials.

Bustos’ bill would require American flags purchased with taxpayer dollars be wholly produced in the United States. Yesterday, that bill passed the House. Bustos has been working on this issue for years; and this is not the first time her measure has made it out of the house.

HR 3121 will now go to the Senate to be voted on there.

You can watch Bustos’ speech in the player. You can read the bill here.

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