Press Releases: May 2017
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:
Sacramento—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) have introduced a California bill to protect drivers’ privacy by allowing them to cover their license plates while parked to avoid being photographed by automated license plate readers (ALPRs).
The legislation will be considered by the California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. EFF Investigative Researcher Dave Maass will testify as a witness in support of the bill.
Under current law, Californians can cover their entire vehicles—including the plates—when lawfully parked. The proposed bill, S.B. 712, would clarify that California drivers can cover just the plate under the same circumstances. Law enforcement officers would still have the authority to lift the cover to inspect a license plate.
ALPRs are high-speed cameras that photograph the license plates of any vehicles that pass within view and convert the plate scans into machine-readable information. GPS coordinates and time stamps are attached to the data, which is uploaded to a searchable central database. Depending on the database, this information may be accessed by a variety of sectors, including law enforcement, the insurance industry, and debt collectors. In aggregate, this data can reveal sensitive, private location information about innocent people, such as their travel patterns, where they sleep at night, where they worship, when they attend political protests or gun shows, and what medical facilities they visit.
The bill would allow vehicle owners to shield their license plates from ALPRs mounted on police cars or vehicles operated by private surveillance companies that cruise down streets and in parking lots photographing licenses of parked cars. These companies often offer services such as the ability to predict a driver’s movements or to identify a driver’s associates based on vehicles regularly found parked near each other.
“Californians deserve a way to protect themselves from the data miners of the roadway—automated license plate reader companies,” said Maass. “This bill doesn’t put a new burden on law enforcement or businesses, but rather gives members of the public who aren’t breaking the law a way to ensure they’re not being spied on once they’ve legally parked their car.”
If the information is breached, accessed by unauthorized users, or sold publicly, ALPR data has the potential to put people in real danger, such as making domestic violence victims’ travel patterns available to their ex-partners. Law enforcement officials should also support this bill, since ALPR data can also reveal information about the home lives of officers or their meetings with witnesses. People could protect themselves when they visit sensitive locations, such as political rallies and protests.
“State law allows for fully covered vehicles if law enforcement can lift the cover to read the license plate and registration,” Sen. Anderson said. “S.B. 712 would specifically allow for partially covering vehicles including the license plate only.”
Who: Dave Maass, Electronic Frontier Foundation Investigative Researcher
When: Tuesday, May 9, 1:30 pm
Where: California State Capitol, Room 4203
10th and L Streets
Sacramento, CA 95814
Text of the legislation: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB712
EFF’s Support Letter: https://www.eff.org/document/sb-712-support-letter
EFF's Second letter on the Constitutional right to privacy: https://www.eff.org/document/effs-second-letter-sb-712
Official S.B. 712 Fact Sheet: https://www.eff.org/document/sb-712-fact-sheet
FBI Used One Warrant to Infiltrate Thousands of Computers
Boston – On Wednesday, May 3, at 9:30 am, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) will argue that an FBI search warrant used to hack thousands of computers around the world was unconstitutional.
The hearing in U.S. v. Levin at the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit stems from one of the many cases arising from a controversial investigation into “Playpen,” a child pornography website. The precedent set by the Playpen prosecutions is likely to impact the digital privacy rights of Internet users for years to come.
During the investigation, the FBI secretly seized the servers running the Playpen site and continued to operate them for two weeks. The bureau allowed thousands of images to be downloaded while distributing malware to website visitors. With that malware, the FBI hacked into over 8,000 devices in hundreds of countries across the globe—all on the basis of a single warrant.
However, because the government was running the Playpen site, it was already in possession of information about visitors and their computers. Rather than taking the necessary steps to obtain narrow search warrants, the FBI instead sought a single, general warrant to authorize its massive hacking operation, violating the Fourth Amendment. In Wednesday’s hearing, EFF Senior Staff Attorney Mark Rumold will argue as amicus, urging the court to send a clear message that a vague search warrant is not enough to satisfy the privacy protections enshrined in the Constitution.
U.S. v. Levin
Wednesday, May 3
United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse
1 Courthouse Way
Boston, MA 02210
For more information on this case: