FBI Paid Multiple Best Buy Employees After Finding Illegal Content On Computers

Image courtesy of Rob Lawton

As we told you last spring, lawyers for a California doctor accused of possessing child pornography claimed that the FBI had paid a Best Buy employee as an informant. Recently released court documents confirm that multiple Best Buy/Geek Squad staffers received money from the agency after telling the FBI about finding illegal content on customers’ devices.

Sworn declarations in this case from current and former Best Buy staffers and FBI agents show that money did in fact change hands between the law enforcement agency and employees at the electronics retailer.

“I was paid $500 in 2011 by Special Agent Tracey Riley,” reads one statement [PDF] from a former manager at Best Buy’s “Geek Squad City,” a large, centralized electronics service center for the retailer. “It made me uncomfortable to receive money and I contacted our legal department. I gave the money to charity.”

The former manager clarifies that it was not Best Buy policy to actively seek out illegal content on users’ devices, but if a tech were to come upon child pornography in the course of providing service, the tech was to stop work immediately and notify a manager who would then contact the FBI. As he understands it, the FBI never communicated directly with the service techs at Geek Squad City.

Even though the payment received by this staffer was apparently given in response to reporting illegal content found on a customers’ device, he says he did not take it as an encouragement to “find child pornography on behalf of the FBI,” and claims that the agency never actively pushed him to search devices for child porn.

His sentiments were repeated in declarations filed by other Best Buy staffers who received payments from the FBI.

A man who was formerly in charge of the Data Recovery division at Geek Squad City admitted [PDF] to receiving an unspecified amount of money from the FBI in 2008, but claims he was “extremely reluctant and irritated that the FBI gave me money, and tried to give it back.”

In his declaration, he claims to have contacted the Best Buy legal department before ultimately giving the money to a local charity that benefits battered women.

As for whether this reward was taken as an enticement for him to inform on additional customers, he contends that “The money was entirely irrelevant to me. The FBI indicated to me they could not take the money back because they had to spend it as part of their budget.”

While these employees and the relevant agents deny any sort of collusion, other items noted in the court documents raise questions about how closely the FBI agents worked with some Best Buy staffers.

One former agent confirms [PDF] in her declaration that the employee who alerted the FBI to alleged child pornography found on the computer of the defendant in this case, had been signed up by the agency as a “confidential human source” (CHS) in 2009 — two years before the offending content was discovered in this case — but contends that this worker was “never asked” to “search for child pornography or evidence of any other crime on behalf of the FBI.”

However, in a Dec. 19 order [PDF] in this case, the judge notes that emailed communications may hint at a deeper connection between the agency and the Geek Squadder.

For instance, in Oct. 2009, this agent emailed the Best Buy staffer to set up a meeting “to discuss some other ideas for collaboration.” The since-retired agent now says she has no “independent recollection of what ‘collaboration'” refers to in that email, blaming her memory lapse on brain damage caused by Lyme disease.

In the years that followed, it appears that this employee communicated with the FBI intermittently, referring agents to possible cases of child pornography.

An internal FBI email from July 2010 notes that the “Source [the Best Buy staffer] reported all has been quiet for about the last 5-6 months, however source agreed that once school started again, they may see an influx of CP [child pornography].”

In early 2012, this employee sent the FBI agent an email alerting her to the discovery of possible child porn in this case, copying another Best Buy staffer who also happened to be a CHS for the agency.

“We have another one out of California we want you to take a look at, when can you swing by?” reads that email.

In fact, a declaration from a current FBI special agent [PDF] says he knew of at least four confidential sources — including the two men on that 2012 email — at the electronics retailer. He also says he knows of payments of $500 each to at least two of these individuals, though again he denies that it was to encourage further work on behalf of the agency.

While others acknowledged receiving payments for their involvement, the Geek Squadder who reported the doctor’s computer says in his declaration [PDF] that he has no memory of being paid.

As the Washington Post notes, while the Best Buy techs may be permitted to search customers’ computers, the involvement of law enforcement — through payments and the use of informants — raises legal and ethical questions.

The doctor’s lawyer contends that the FBI’s relationship to these Best Buy employees may have led them to search in areas of the computer where they had no reason to look. In this case, the alleged child porn was found on “unallocated” disk space — a portion of the hard drive where recently deleted files live until they are permanently overwritten.

To the defendant, Best Buy had no reason to go poking around in this area of the computer other than to look for things that may be of interest to law enforcement. The defense also contends that unallocated disk space is only accessed using forensic tools that Best Buy had no need to use in this instance.

A Best Buy rep confirms to the Post that company policy is only do “what is necessary to solve the customer’s problem,” but that Geek Squad techs may “unintentionally find child pornography as they try to make the repairs the customer is paying for. They are not looking for it.”

Best Buy also clarifies that “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.”

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