The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Justice Wednesday after a months-long quest to obtain records regarding the FBI’s alleged use of Best Buy Geek Squad employees to search customer computers without warrants.
The lawsuit comes after a February FOIA request by EFF was denied by the FBI under grounds that the FBI will neither confirm nor deny the existence of records pertaining to an ongoing investigations. EFF also received no comment on a following administrative appeal.
EFF Civil Liberties Director David Greene told CyberScoop that the FBI had not yet commented on the lawsuit, which seeks to examine whether Geek Squad employees have acted on behalf of federal agents when searching customer computers, in which case a warrant is necessary, according to constitutional law.
“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.”
Customers that take their computers to Best Buy for repairs must consent to device searches as well as potential seizure if child pornography is located on the device, according to a Washington Post article.
The nature of the relationship between Best Buy’s Geek Squad and federal agents came under scrutiny in early April after surgeon Mark Rettenmaier was charged for possession of child pornography after he brought his computer into Best Buy for repairs.
While Rettenmaier’s lawyers claim that Geek Squad employees violated the doctor’s constitutional rights by acting as federal agents and searching private property without a warrant, Best Buy and the U.S. attorney’s office have denied any wrongdoing.
Briefs about sealed court documents and testimony connected to the Rettenmaier case, obtained by the Washington Post, show payments ranging from $500 to $1,000 from the FBI to some Best Buy employees at a Geek Squad facility based in Kentucky.
“Informants who are trained, directed, and paid by the FBI to conduct searches for the agency are acting as government agents,” said Greene. “The FBI cannot bypass the Constitution’s warrant requirement by having its informants search people’s computers at its direction and command.”
The EFF is not aware of any other instances of the FBI working with an electronic service company, Green told CyberScoop.
“One of the reasons we filed the FOIA request was to try and get as much information about these [instances] as possible,” Greene said.
The original FOIA request sent by EFF in February sought records regarding the search for child pornography on computers, FBI training of Best Buy employees and statements regarding computer repair facility informants.