Digital Rights Advocates Sue Justice Dept. To Learn More About FBI Paying Off Best Buy Informants

Image courtesy of Rob Lawton

A child pornography case in California has grown into a strange thing over the years, as lawyers for the defendant argued — and later proved — that the FBI had been paying Best Buy employees after they found illegal content on customers’ devices. Now the EFF is suing the Justice Department to find out just how the feds found, recruited, and trained these informants, and just how widespread the practice is.

The EFF, a major digital rights advocacy group, has now filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Justice Department to learn more about how the FBI attracted, trained, and used Geek Squad employees.

This challenge is several years in the making.

About a year ago, in 2016, a California man facing charges for possessing child pornography claimed that his case should be thrown out. Why? Because, his lawyer alleged, the Best Buy Geek Squad employee that found and reported the images on his computer had been paid by the FBI after he reported them. That, the lawyer argued, meant the employee was a government agent who searched the computer without a warrant, violating the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.

In January of this year, documents surfaced in that case confirming that multiple Geek Squad staffers did indeed receive money from the FBI after finding unlawful content on customers’ devices.

Sworn statements from both Best Buy Geek Squad employees and FBI agents showed that several different employees received payouts after telling the FBI what they’d found. Documents also showed that some Best Buy managers were named “confidential human sources.”

One former employee, who had been in charge of Data Recovery at Best Buy’s “Geek Squad City” said that he’d received money from the FBI in 2008 but said he was “extremely reluctant and irritated that the FBI gave [him] money, and tried to give it back.”

Best Buy said at the time 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.”

MORE: FBI Paid Multiple Best Buy Employees After Finding Illegal Content on Computers

The EFF sent a FOIA request to the Justice Department in February, asking for documents relating to paid informants at Best Buy. The FBI denied the request, however, saying it wouldn’t confirm or deny that it has records revealing whether someone is under investigation.

So now, the EFF is suing.

In the complaint [PDF], the EFF requests the FBI turn over all “internal memoranda or other documentation” regarding the feds’ use of informants or cooperating human sources from Best Buy, as well as anything related to recruiting or training of Best Buy personnel “in the detection and location of child pornography or other material on computers brought to Best Buy for repair.”

And, just for good measure, the EFF requests the same related to “any computer repair facilities in the United States,” not just ones operated by Best Buy.

“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,” EFF Senior Counsel David Sobel said in a statement. “People authorize Best Buy employees to fix their computers, not conduct unconstitutional searches on the FBI’s behalf.”

“Informants who are trained, directed, and paid by the FBI to conduct searches for the agency are acting as government agents,” EFF Civil Liberties Director David Greene added. “The FBI cannot bypass the Constitution’s warrant requirement by having its informants search people’s computers at its direction and command.”