The Electronic Frontier Foundation wants to protect you from warrantless searches by computer repair people and they’re looking for your help.
Warrant? Hah! Did John Wayne ever get a warrant? Fourth Amendment, you say? We don’t need no stinking amendments around here. We’re Geek Squad and we’re on the side of THE LAW, so if we find anything illegal on your computer and hand it to the FBI, you have no right to complain, pilgrim, and we deserve a reward!
The FBI seems to agree with the “deserve a reward” statement, because they have been giving Geek Squad employees $500 or $1000 rewards for finding porn on repair customers’ computers.
About that Fourth Amendment: the Geek Squad argument is that their techs are private citizens, not law enforcement personnel. But, you might say, if Geek Squad techs are getting paid by law enforcement, doesn’t that make them agents of law enforcement? Some say yes, some say no, and even the courts don’t seem to be sure, which is why the EFF is Suing the FBI for Records About Best Buy Geek Squad Informants.
Here’s a quote from the EFF page announcing the suit:
- We think that the FBI’s use of Geek Squad informants is not an isolated event. Rather, it is a regular investigative tactic law enforcement employ to obtain digital evidence without first getting a warrant as the Fourth Amendment generally requires. EFF continues to look for opportunities to challenge this type of law enforcement behavior. If you have had your digital devices sent to the main Best Buy repair hub in Brooks, Kentucky for repair and it resulted in criminal proceedings against you, contact us at email@example.com.
Obviously, if you had Geek Squad repair something of yours and it’s possible that this set The Law against you, the best thing to do is contact the EFF immediately. And, of course, donating money to the EFF is always a good thing to do, especially if you use the Internet — which, come to think of it, you are doing at this very moment.
One important note: lest you think we’re unfairly piling on Geek Squad, it’s only because they’re huge. What makes you think Sheriff Jefferson Beauregard never asks Bill’s Discount Computer Repair to do a little hard drive snooping in return for a beer down at the American Legion, and maybe a wink instead of a speeding ticket next time Bill is rushing to a repair call?
One way you can defend against this problem is to keep any potentially illegal or subversive material on an external hard drive so you can take your computer to a repair shop or send it off for warranty service minus your data. This is actually a good idea in general; if your clean-as-the-driven snow data is on an external drive and is backed up elsewhere, preferably offsite, you don’t risk losing said data if you send your system off for a bit of fixit work.
But hardly anybody backs up their data. I do, most of the time, because I’m a little crazy. I keep almost all my files on external hard drives because my computers actually run on very fast, not very large SSDs. Not only that, if you stick to exFAT32 (which breaks the old FAT file size barrier) you can share the same files across multiple machines and operating systems. And yes, I keep backups of files I deem important on Google Drive. Being a bit paranoid, I encrypt them before uploading. Crazy? Not secret stuff, so maybe a little. It takes hardly any effort, though, so why not?
And a last thing you can do to keep sneaky repair people out of the back corners of your hard drive (or SSD): don’t let your computers out of your sight. I have had exactly one computer job in the last year where I needed help. I called local smart repair person Ray, who came to my house, as did my friend Matt, where Ray showed us what he was doing and we learned from him. Was beer consumed? You bet! Did I pay Ray? Again, you bet! He’s a Mac expert and did a hard drive password bypass on a MacBook Pro in a couple of minutes instead of dicking around for an hour, which Matt and I probably would have.
But as a rule, I do my own computer repairs, which means that if I don’t trust my repair person, I have problems far worse than anything going on in my computer(s).
Robin “Roblimo” Miller is a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief at Open Source Technology Group, the company that owned SourceForge, freshmeat, Linux.com, NewsForge, ThinkGeek and Slashdot, and until recently served as a video editor at Slashdot. Now he’s mostly retired, but still works part-time as an editorial consultant for Grid Dynamics, and (obviously) writes for FOSS Force.