Geek Squad: A matter of trust

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 1, 2008 - 11:30 PM

Best Buy's Geek Squad, whose technicians have been accused of copying revealing materials and photos from customers' computers, is changing some rules. One Hennepin County case is set for trial.

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Last May, a blogger claiming to have worked for Geek Squad warned: “If you have any interesting pictures … on your computer, then they – will – be – found.”

Photo: Glen Stubbe , Star Tribune

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Nearly a year after Best Buy Co. Inc. came under fire for allegedly copying photos from customers' computers, the retail giant is scheduled to go to trial in a case that renews questions about whether people can trust their personal information to computer technicians.

In May last year, a blog known as the Consumerist ran a lengthy "confession" from an anonymous writer claiming to be a former agent of Geek Squad, Best Buy's computer troubleshooting service. "If you have any interesting pictures of yourself or others on your computer, then they -- will -- be -- found," the person wrote.

Now, with a lawsuit set to go to trial in July in Hennepin County, another confession is out. But it's no longer anonymous.

William E. Giffels, an agent in the Best Buy store in Traverse City, Mich., was fired after he admitted in a written statement to copying a woman's photos onto his personal flash drive. The nude photos of the woman were then inadvertently copied onto CDs used in the Geek Squad area, according to court documents.

"I really have nothing to say in my defense," Giffels wrote. "It was dumb, and I regret that lapse in judgment. I have placed Best Buy in a precarious position, both legally and 'reputationally.' "

Best Buy officials declined to comment about the case but outlined a series of steps that the company has taken over the past year to better protect customer information.

Among other actions, the retailer has increased the frequency of the "remote audits" it conducts of Geek Squad computers.

Using powerful mainframes at Best Buy's headquarters in Richfield, the company now scans several hundred Geek Squad computers each night to see if customer data are stored appropriately. Previously, these audits were done only several times a year.

In addition, Best Buy is rolling out new hardware and software that enables Geek Squad technicians to scan through files faster, and limits the type of information they can see. For instance, customer files that are stored on this new system can only be viewed by their file names, without personal content. And within the past year, the company also banned the use of personal flash drives, also known as "thumb drives," by its Geek Squad technicians.

"Our agents only see the data they need to," Best Buy spokeswoman Paula Baldwin said.

Even so, some question whether it's possible to eliminate illicit copying of customer data at a computer troubleshooting service as large as Geek Squad. "They're young men with little over-the-shoulder oversight [who are] given access to lots of personal data," said Ben Popken, editor of the Consumerist. "No matter what investigative protocol Best Buy uses, someone is going to find a way around it."

Soon after Popken's website published the anonymous account a year ago, other Geek Squad agents came forward with tales of employees copying customers' photos, music and pornography. Bloggers began to derisively refer to the 17,000-person technical service as the "Peep Squad."

In response, Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens said last spring that he would increase surveillance of Geek Squad work areas, known as "precincts," and terminate anyone found stealing customer information.

"This is personal for me; as personal as it is for the customers," Stephens said last May. "This definitely is a top concern."

Photos were for her boyfriend

Kaylee Hall, a 23-year-old woman from Traverse City, Mich., who is pursuing a degree to become a dietitian, said in a recent interview that Best Buy has yet to apologize for an incident that occurred three years ago, and has now become the subject of a protracted legal dispute. Hall's case illustrates how easy it is for customer files to be downloaded and then copied from one computer to another, often clandestinely.

Hall said she brought her computer into a local Best Buy store in summer 2005, unaware that the machine still contained 27 of her personal photos. In each photo, Hall was nude, though her private areas were mostly covered by towels and sheets, she said. Hall said the digital pictures were for an album she was giving her longtime boyfriend for Valentine's Day, and she thought they had been erased from her computer before she took it into Best Buy.

Giffels, the Geek Squad agent, spotted the photos when he was working on the computer. "At that time, another agent and I noticed one of the pictures was fairly revealing," Giffels wrote in his statement. "We wondered if there was anything more revealing, and I then copied the pictures onto my personal flash drive. I did look at the pictures later, and they did contain some pictures that were, I believe, pretty close to naked."

Several months later, Giffels was informed by a fellow employee that the photos he had downloaded to the flash drive had made their way onto a central computer in the Geek Squad work area and CDs used by the technicians to perform work on the computers, according to court documents.

The agents threw the CDs into the trash and deleted all the photos from Geek Squad's computer, according to court documents. Giffels was officially terminated Sept. 22, 2005, three days after one of his fellow Geek Squad agents told a Best Buy manager what had happened.

In a bigger city, the incident might have ended there. But in Traverse City, a community of about 15,000 on Lake Michigan where many people know each other, it didn't take long for news of the firing to reach Hall. That winter, Hall learned of the illicit copying through a friend who worked at Geek Squad, according to court documents.

Three years later, Hall is still bothered by the incident. She wonders if the photos have circulated onto the Internet and if others in Traverse City have seen them. "You drive around and you're always suspicious if people can recognize me from the photos."

Attorneys for Hall filed the lawsuit in Hennepin County because that is where Best Buy is based.

Today, a Hennepin County court judge will hold a hearing to determine whether Hall can pursue punitive damages. She has accused Best Buy of negligence and invasion of privacy, and is seeking damages in excess of $50,000. A jury trial is scheduled for July 14.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

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