The FBI “Peek Squad”

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Welcome to the Geek Squad, how may I report you?

Having computer problems? You may want to think twice before picking up the phone to call for a repair. According to recent court documents filed in federal court in California, a simple hard drive replacement could lead to your arrest.

It may sound far-fetched, but the Federal Bureau of Investigations is being forced to explain an uncomfortably cozy relationship between its agents, and those of Best Buy’s electronics servicing team, Geek Squad. Specifically at issue is evidence that the FBI actively worked with Geek Squad employees to train them on how to identify and report suspicious computer files during service calls; going so far as to allegedly offering a bonus of $500 for evidence leading to criminal charges against a customer. In some cases, this snooping by private contractors had nothing to do with the original repair requests; amounting to a clear invasion of privacy and breach of trust, with the full blessing – if not encouragement – by law enforcement officials.

The damning article about the case, USA v. Mark Rettenmaier, by OC Weekly reporter R. Scott Moxley, notes that Geek Squad employees worked “under the direction and control of the FBI,” and that the FBI sought “training of the Geek Squad Facility technicians” to help them better sniff out illegal material in the course of servicing computers and other technology, including the use of “highly specialized computer-intrusion tools” that would appear to be less for repairs than outright spying on customers they were supposedly there to help. However, even without such devices, a search through one’s personal files by a trained computer technician would be almost impossible to detect, or notice, without standing directly over their shoulder the entire time.

Given Geek Squad’s massive, nationwide footprint of more than 20,000 employees, and its (once solid) reputation of trust among consumers, it is easy to see why this private “Peek Squad” would be an enticing ally for federal law enforcement. With unfettered access not just to its customers’ homes, but computer hard drives containing huge amounts of highly personal and often sensitive data, Geek Squad employees and others like them have an unprecedented opportunity to surreptitiously mine this data (or copy it for later inspection) for suspected wrongdoing; all without having to worry about the pesky hindrances of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against such unreasonable searches and seizures.

Certainly, and as Best Buy has emphasized in defending itself against these accusations, private contractors have an obligation to report illegal material found during the normal course of their service requests. Such reports have been allowed by courts if the private entity “happens to have found” evidence and turns it over to law enforcement. It becomes a completely different matter, however, when the government is doing more than passively receiving evidence of a possible criminal offense from an outside source; as here for example, if law enforcement is directing or training these individuals to operate as de facto agents. In such circumstances, courts have held that the outside workers, such as computer repair technicians, are serving in effect as government agents and are subject to Fourth Amendment search and seizure provisions.

This is not the first time federal law enforcement has attempted to enlist outside, “Fourth Amendment proof” agents for surveillance. A decade ago, it was revealed the Department of Homeland Security wanted to train firefighters and utility workers in surveillance; taking advantage of their expanded ability to enter homes without warrants. However, the use of computer repair employees demonstrates an entirely different level of disregard for the rule of law.

Consequently, Best Buy, which should have seen the blowback suffered by Verizon four years ago for similar allegations of dubious collusion with government spooks as reason for stopping this partnership with the FBI dead in its tracks, now faces a devastating hit to one of its few remaining competitive advantages in the marketplace. Though, if its perilous relationship with the FBI proves to be every bit as disturbing as painted by the OC Weekly, such a blow would be entirely justified, and, hopefully, would serve as an example to others that ethics is not to be sacrificed just because the FBI gives them a pat on the back and a check in their wallet.

Not only does side-stepping the Fourth Amendment threaten innocent people with false accusations of wrongdoing (can Geek Squad employees tell the difference between a parent’s photo of their children from genuine child pornography?), the use of private citizens to surveil their fellow citizens completely guts one of the last remaining vestiges of personal privacy in today’s society. Americans should nothave to worry that that the computer repair person with whom they contract may be a secret spy for the government.

If the government receives a green light from the courts to continue this practice, it may very well be the event horizon into total State control, which no “reboot” or “reformatting” will ever fix.

Bob Barr
Bob Barr is a former Congressman who represented the citizens of Georgia’s 7th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. Bob heads Liberty Guard, a non-profit and non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting individual liberty.