Washington, D.C.—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Justice Department to obtain records about the FBI’s training and use of Best Buy Geek Squad employees to conduct warrantless searches of customers’ computers.
The records request aims to shed light on how the FBI co-opts Best Buy repair technicians in criminal investigations, and whether the computer searches they conducted were in effect government searches. The U.S. Constitution generally requires federal agents, or those acting on their behalf, to first obtain a warrant before searching someone’s computer. If the Best Buy informants were acting as government agents, the warrantless computer searches they conducted would be illegal.
Court records in a child pornography case against a California man who sent his computer to Best Buy for repair showed a long, close relationship between company technicians and the FBI, according to media reports. Informants at Best Buy’s “Geek Squad City” repair facility in Kentucky received $500 and $1,000 payments from the FBI, and agency documents said the Best Buy informants were “under the control and direction of the FBI,” media stories revealed. FBI agents were seeking training of the Geek Squad technicians to help them identify what type of files and images should be reported to the FBI.
“Informants who are trained, directed, and paid by the FBI to conduct searches for the agency are acting as government agents,” said David Greene, EFF Civil Liberties Director. “The FBI cannot bypass the Constitution’s warrant requirement by having its informants search people’s computers at its direction and command.”
EFF sent a FOIA request to the FBI in February seeking agency records about the use of informants, training of Best Buy personnel in the detection and location of child pornography on computers, and policy statements about using informants at computer repair facilities. The FBI denied the request, saying it doesn’t confirm or deny that it has records that would reveal whether a person or organization is under investigation.
“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,” said David Sobel, EFF Senior Counsel. “People authorize Best Buy employees to fix their computers, not conduct unconstitutional searches on the FBI’s behalf.”
For EFF's complaint: