Note: The post has been updated to include comments from Best Buy.
Best Buy has quite a support service in Geek Squad. It's the only national tech service center, and it makes house calls. I had a tech come to calibrate my HDTV set, and the difference was night and day.
In 2014, Geek Squad brought in $1.8 billion in revenue, which was a drop from the previous year, but still accounted for 5 percent of Best Buy revenue. So, it's not insignificant.
And it seems the geeks are making a few extra bucks. The Orange County Weekly reports that the company's repair technicians routinely search devices brought in for repair for files that could earn them $500 reward as FBI informants.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is about as blatant a case of unconstitutional search and seizure as it gets.
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This revelation came out in a court case, United States of America v. Mark A. Rettenmaier. Rettenmaier is a prominent Orange County physician and surgeon who took his laptop to the Mission Viejo Best Buy in November 2011 after he was unable to start it.
According to court records, Geek Squad technician John "Trey" Westphal found an image of "a fully nude, white prepubescent female on her hands and knees on a bed, with a brown choker-type collar around her neck." Westphal notified his boss, who was also an FBI informant, who alerted another FBI informant—as well as the FBI itself.
Searches without warrants
The FBI has pretty much guaranteed the case will be thrown out by its behavior, this illegal search aside. According to Dr. Rettenmaier's defense attorney, agents conducted two additional searches of the computer without obtaining necessary warrants, lied to trick a federal magistrate judge into authorizing a search warrant for his home, then tried to cover up their misdeeds by initially hiding records.
Plus, the file was found in the unallocated "trash" space, meaning it could only be retrieved by "carving" with sophisticated forensics tools. Carving (or file carving) is defined as searching for files or other kinds of objects based on content, rather than on metadata. It's used to recover old files that have been deleted or damaged.
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As it turns out, Best Buy had a valid reason to run such a tool. The company claims that in the case of Dr. Rettenmaier, it was engaged in data recovery off the client computer. So, it was proper to use such a tool in this case.
To prove child pornography, you have to prove the possessor knew what he had was indeed child porn. There has been a court case where files found on unallocated space did not constitute knowing possession because it's impossible to determine who put the file there and how, since it's not accessible to the user under normal circumstances.
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But the real question is why in the world was a Geek Squad staffer running a carver on the laptop? His job was to get the thing running, and I doubt recovering deleted files would make much difference. The answer is $500.
Update: Best Buy issued the following statement to Network World:
"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.
“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.
“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.”
Best Buy has made its denial, and since you can’t prove a negative (that they are not spying), it becomes a matter of faith. Do you trust them in light of the allegations made by Dr. Rettenmaier’s attorney? That call is for you to make. The court case will decide if the FBI acted unconstitutionally, so more, either damning or exculpatory evidence, could come out in court.