Geek Squad's Relationship with FBI Is Cozier Than We Thought
By Aaron Mackey
March 6, 2018

After the prosecution of a California doctor revealed the FBI’s ties to a Best 
Buy Geek Squad computer repair facility in Kentucky, new documents released to 
EFF show that the relationship goes back years. The records also confirm that 
the FBI has paid Geek Squad employees as informants.

EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit last year to learn more 
about how the FBI uses Geek Squad employees to flag illegal material when 
people pay Best Buy to repair their computers. The relationship potentially 
circumvents computer owners’ Fourth Amendment rights.

The documents released to EFF show that Best Buy officials have enjoyed a 
particularly close relationship with the agency for at least 10 years. For 
example, an FBI memo from September 2008 details how Best Buy hosted a meeting 
of the agency’s “Cyber Working Group” at the company’s Kentucky repair facility.

The memo and a related email show that Geek Squad employees also gave FBI 
officials a tour of the facility before their meeting and makes clear that the 
law enforcement agency’s Louisville Division “has maintained close liaison with 
the Geek Squad’s management in an effort to glean case initiations and to 
support the division’s Computer Intrusion and Cyber Crime programs.”

Another document records a $500 payment from the FBI to a confidential Geek 
Squad informant. This appears to be one of the same payments at issue in the 
prosecution of Mark Rettenmaier, the California doctor who was charged with 
possession of child pornography after Best Buy sent his computer to the 
Kentucky Geek Squad repair facility.

Other documents show that over the years of working with Geek Squad employees, 
FBI agents developed a process for investigating and prosecuting people who 
sent their devices to the Geek Squad for repairs. The documents detail a series 
of FBI investigations in which a Geek Squad employee would call the FBI’s 
Louisville field office after finding what they believed was child pornography.

The FBI agent would show up, review the images or video and determine whether 
they believe they are illegal content. After that, they would seize the hard 
drive or computer and send it to another FBI field office near where the owner 
of the device lived. Agents at that local FBI office would then investigate 
further, and in some cases try to obtain a warrant to search the device. 

Some of these reports indicate that the FBI treated Geek Squad employees as 
informants, identifying them as “CHS,” which is shorthand for confidential 
human sources. In other cases, the FBI identifies the initial calls as coming 
from Best Buy employees, raising questions as to whether certain employees had 
different relationships with the FBI.

In the case of the investigation into Rettenmaier’s computers, the documents 
released to EFF do not appear to have been made public in that prosecution. 
These raise additional questions about the level of cooperation between the 
company and law enforcement.

For example, documents reflect that Geek Squad employees only alert the FBI 
when they happen to find illegal materials during a manual search of images on 
a device and that the FBI does not direct those employees to actively find 
illegal content.

But some evidence in the case appears to show Geek Squad employees did make an 
affirmative effort to identify illegal material. For example, the image found 
on Rettenmaier’s hard drive was in an unallocated space, which typically 
requires forensic software to find. Other evidence showed that Geek Squad 
employees were financially rewarded for finding child pornography. Such a 
bounty would likely encourage Geek Squad employees to actively sweep for 
suspicious content.

Although these documents provide new details about the FBI’s connection to Geek 
Squad and its Kentucky repair facility, the FBI has withheld a number of other 
documents in response to our FOIA suit. Worse, the FBI has refused to confirm 
or deny to EFF whether it has similar relationships with other computer repair 
facilities or businesses, despite our FOIA specifically requesting those 
records. The FBI has also failed to produce documents that would show whether 
the agency has any internal procedures or training materials that govern when 
agents seek to cultivate informants at computer repair facilities.

We plan to challenge the FBI’s stonewalling in court later this spring. In the 
meantime, you can read the documents produced so far here and here.

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