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EFF sues FBI for records of alleged informants at Best Buy

The rights group worries that the warrantless searches of devices circumvents customers' Fourth Amendment rights.

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation is suing the FBI for more information about its relationship with Best Buy employees with whom the FBI says acted as paid informants for the agency.

The nonprofit digital rights organization filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit (PDF) Wednesday in US District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking FBI records about the extent to which the agency trains and directs Best Buy Geek Squad employees to conduct warrantless searches of customers' devices during maintenance.

The EFF says it worries that use of repair technicians to root out evidence of criminal behavior circumvents people's Constitutional rights.

"EFF has long been concerned about law enforcement using private actors, such as Best Buy employees, to conduct warrantless searches that the Fourth Amendment plainly bars police from doing themselves," the digital rights organization said in a statement. "The key question is at what point does a private person's search turn into a government search that implicates the Fourth Amendment."

The role of a computer technician providing evidence in a criminal case arose in a lawsuit last year in which a Southern California doctor was accused of possessing child pornography. The doctor's attorney claimed the FBI used an employee at Best Buy's maintenance facility outside Louisville, Kentucky, to conduct warrantless searches of customers' devices.

Since 2009, "the FBI was dealing with a paid agent inside the Geek Squad who was used for the specific purpose of searching clients' computers for child pornography and other contraband or evidence of crimes," defense attorney James Riddet said in a court filing cited by the Los Angeles Times.

The FBI didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Best Buy declined to comment, citing its lack of involvement in the lawsuit.

A Best Buy statement about the doctor's case says as a matter of policy its employees aren't directed to search for child pornography, but notes it has a moral and often legal obligation to turn over such material when it is inadvertently discovered.

"As a company, we have not sought or received training from law enforcement in how to search for child pornography," the statement says. "Our policies prohibit employees from doing anything other than what is necessary to solve the customer's problem."

The statement goes on to say that three of the four employees who may have received payment from the FBI are no longer employed by the company. The fourth was reprimanded and reassigned.

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