The informants were discovered after Best Buy’s Geek Squad technicians at a Kentucky repair shop found thousands of child-pornography images on California doctor Mark Rettenmaier’s computer. The documents from the ensuing court case showed that eight informants were cooperating with the FBI to turn over illegal content.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the Department of Justice and finally obtained records the FBI had not revealed, which proved Best Buy had a long-term relationship with federal agents.
FBI agents would come and confiscate any device on which technicians found illegal content, take it to a field office, and, in some cases, obtain a warrant to search the device. Several informants received payments from $500 to $1000 for their cooperation.
Critics have raised possible Fourth Amendment issues with this unusual practice. Best Buy is sanctioned to search devices, but the FBI is supposed to obtain a warrant to do so. Providing a monetary incentive to employees would likely encourage them to perform searches that are unnecessary to the repair, the watchdogs say.
Last year, a Best Buy spokesman said the dealings the company had with federal agents occurred only if an employee happened upon illegal content by accident.
“We have a legal and moral obligation to turn that material over to law enforcement,” spokesman Jeff Shelman said.
“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,” Shelman said.
However, the Kentucky FBI branch “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,” one document says.
Best Buy at one point hosted a FBI’s Cyber Crimes Working Group at the Kentucky repair facility.
The revelation comes after the FBI raised eyebrows over reports that it abused its surveillance authority to target Trump campaign officials during the 2016 election.