Records show deep ties between FBI and Best Buy computer technicians looking for child porn
Technicians for Best Buy’s “Geek Squad City” computer repair facility had a long, close relationship with the FBI in “a joint venture to ferret out child porn,” according to claims in new federal court documents, which also note that Best Buy’s management “was aware that its supervisory personnel were being paid by the FBI” and that its technicians were developing a program to find child pornography with the FBI’s guidance.
The allegations are made by lawyers for a California doctor charged with possessing child pornography, after the doctor took his computer to a Best Buy store for repair. Computers which require data recovery are typically sent from Best Buy stores around the country to a central Geek Squad City facility in Brooks, Ky., and customers consent to having their computers searched — and turned over to authorities if child porn is found.
While there is no question that Geek Squad technicians have notified authorities after finding child porn, the new court documents assert that there is a deeper relationship than has previously been revealed between the company and federal authorities. The court is now considering the extent of that relationship and whether it is grounds to throw out a pending child porn case, though it could also have ramifications for the dozens of cases which originate from the Kentucky facility annually.
Defense lawyers for the doctor argue that Geek Squad City’s technicians acted as government agents by receiving payments from the FBI, regularly speaking with and referring cases to the FBI, and creating a program to search for child porn. If a government agent wants to search a computer, they need a warrant, and the case has raised issues of privacy invasion and violation of constitutional search and seizure rights.
Both Best Buy and the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles deny any violations in the search of surgeon Mark Rettenmaier’s hard drive, for which the FBI obtained a warrant after being contacted by a Geek Squad supervisor. That in turn led to a warrant and search of Rettenmaier’s home, which led to the discovery of “thousands of images of child pornography,” according to a reply brief by assistant U.S. attorneys Anthony Brown and Gregory Scally.
“The Fourth Amendment is offended by none of this,” the federal prosecutors wrote. “Nothing unreasonable occurred here, and there was no arbitrary invasion of anyone’s privacy by governmental officials…and there’s not a shred of evidence that anyone at the FBI directed anyone at Geek Squad City to detect and locate child pornography for the purpose of reporting it to the FBI.”
Best Buy issued a statement to The Post which said that Geek Squad employees “inadvertently discover” child porn about 100 times a year while trying to recover lost customer data. “As a company, we have not sought or received training from law enforcement in how to search for child pornography. Our policies prohibit employees from doing anything other than what is necessary to solve the customer’s problem. In the wake of these allegations, we have redoubled our efforts to train employees on what to do — and not to do — in these circumstances.”
But James Riddet, the lead attorney for Rettenmaier, contends documents released by the FBI after an evidentiary hearing in January show years of close cooperation between Geek Squad and the FBI field office in Louisville, Ky., which would then launch federal investigations around the country based on where the computer had come from. The actual documents were ordered sealed in the case, but were described and often quoted in briefs filed after the January hearing that were first reported by R. Scott Moxley in the Orange County Weekly.
Riddet declined to be interviewed. But in court filings he said that there were “eight FBI informants at Geek Squad City” between 2007 and 2012, and that the facility’s “data recovery system was designed to identify and report child porn from all over the country.” A number of Geek Squad employees received $500 or $1,000 payments from the FBI, documents and testimony showed. Riddet cited an FBI letter to the U.S. attorney in Kentucky which stated that, “Under the control and direction of the FBI, the CW [confidential witness] agreed to notify the FBI when CW detects the presence of child pornography during the regular course of CW’s employment and is willing to testify in a court of law.”
One Geek Squad employee who received a $500 payment from the FBI filed an affidavit saying he was “extremely reluctant and irritated that the FBI gave me money, and tried to give it back…The FBI indicated to me they could not take the money back because they had to spend it as part of their budget.” But he then noted, “I contacted our legal department” to tell them about the payment, which led Riddet to emphasize that Best Buy management had been put on notice about the FBI payments.
Best Buy’s statement to The Post said, “We have learned that four employees may have received payment after turning over alleged child pornography to the FBI. Any decision to accept payment was in very poor judgment and inconsistent with our training and policies. Three of these employees are no longer with the company and the fourth has been reprimanded and reassigned.”
Federal prosecutors wrote that “It is true that a few payments to Geek Squad City supervisors by the FBI unnecessarily muddied the waters here. But however ill-advised those payments may have been…the money, more of an embarrassment than an incentive, did nothing to turn Geek Squad City supervisors into government agents or Geek Squad City itself into a secret FBI surveillance machine.” Employees there are working on about 2,000 computers at any one time, the prosecutors said.
Riddet also cited an internal FBI report announcing a meeting at Geek Squad City, which noted, “The Louisville Division [of the FBI] has maintained close liaison with the Geek Squad management in an effort to glean case initiations and to support the division’s computer intrusion and cyber crime programs.” The same agent wrote in a separate memo that agents were “seeking training of the Geek Squad facility technicians designed to help them identify what type of files and/or images would necessitate a call to the FBI.”
The FBI only turned over informant files on four of the eight Geek Squad employees it worked with, Riddet wrote, but in one of the files, an employee told agents he “was in the process of writing a software program [that] would help them identify potential images of child pornography in their computer systems” and that “FBI investigative information/techniques [were] revealed to source for operational purposes.”
Federal prosecutors Brown and Scally responded that the software was intended to identify child porn on employees’ work-issued computers, not customers’ computers. They said that “Geek Squad City supervisors reached out to the FBI, not the other way around,” and only did so when they “stumble[d] across disturbing images of children being sexually abused.” Best Buy said, “We have a moral and, in more than 20 states, a legal obligation to report these findings to law enforcement. We share this policy with our customers in writing before we begin any repair.”
But Riddet argued that the discoveries made by Geek Squad technicians were more than accidental, such as the one made in Rettenmaier’s case: a single photo of a nude girl, found in the “unallocated space” of the hard drive where deleted items reside. The Geek Squad supervisor who alerted the FBI to that photo, Justin Meade, “sought out and scrolled through multiple images of suspected child porn to prepare them for viewing by the FBI,” and that “dozens of emails” showed “a very close working relationship between Meade” and an FBI agent in Louisville, Riddet wrote.
During the January hearing on the case, Meade denied receiving payment from the FBI, though FBI agents and records confirmed he had been paid. Meade also testified that when a technician found possible pornography, it was reported to him and he “would go beyond that and look and see are there things here worth reporting to the FBI…either find what’s on that page or scroll down and find more problematic images and make that available to the FBI.”
Riddet wrote that “Best Buy was an agent of the FBI” because all data recovery jobs were sent to Geek Squad City “where the vast majority of hard drives were searched for child pornography,” possible criminal material “was then funneled to a paid FBI informant (Meade)” and that Geek Squad City and the FBI “worked closely together” to search out child porn.
Prosecutors responded that “technicians never searched computers for child pornography,” that Best Buy was not developing software to find customers’ child porn, and that Meade never viewed himself as an informant, but simply Geek Squad’s “liaison to the FBI for reporting the inadvertent discovery of child pornography.” Riddet wrote that FBI records show that agents assigned Meade a code name, that he operated for more than five years and that one FBI report stated one of Meade’s co-workers “recovered erased data on a customer’s computer which contained possible child pornography.”
Riddet has asked U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney to suppress the searches of Rettenmaier’s hard drive and home as illegal. A trial date is set for June, so Carney must rule before then.