Geek Squad not always PC

Some technicians tell of intrusions into customer privacy

July 26, 2007|By Minneapolis Star Tribune...

MINNEAPOLIS -- When Best Buy Co. Inc. bought the Geek Squad five years ago, the two companies pledged to "protect the world from the assault of computerized technology." Geek Squad "agents" even wore badges and drove vehicles resembling police cars.

But as this squadron of techno-nerds has mushroomed into the largest collection of computer troubleshooters in the world, it has become increasingly difficult for the firm to police its own employees.

In recent months, allegations of agents copying pornography, music and alluring photos from customers' computers have circulated on the Internet. Some bloggers now call it the "Peek Squad."

"Any attractive young woman who drops off her computer with the Geek Squad should assume that her photos will be looked at," said Brett Haddock, a former Geek Squad technician.

Best Buy says that any problems are caused by rogue employees and are not systemic. But in light of allegations, the company will increase its monitoring of technicians.

It insists customers' personal photos and other files are safer with the Geek Squad than with most independent computer repair services. The company has rigorous privacy and security measures in place, including checking workers' bags before and after work.

But some current and former Geek Squad agents say the intrusions into customer privacy are symptomatic of a larger problem: that Geek Squad's rapid growth has compromised its service quality and consistency. Some agents said they are graded more on the number of services sold than on the quality of their repairs.

In 1994, Robert Stephens started Geek Squad with $200 and a bicycle to take him from job to job. Eight years later, Stephens sold the firm to Best Buy for $3 million. At the time, the firm had just 50 employees; there are now about 11,000.

The firm maintains that it can "fix any PC problem anytime, anywhere," no matter where the computer was purchased. The agents also make house calls.

But that service has caused problems recently. In May, a Geek Squad agent from California, Hao Kuo Chi, pleaded no contest to one count of invasion of privacy after a woman charged that he secretly used a camera phone to make a video of her taking a shower while he was on a house call.

Also in May, a blog known as the Consumerist ran a lengthy "confession" from an anonymous blogger claiming to be a former Geek Squad agent. "If you have any interesting pictures of yourself or others on your computer, then they - will - be - found," the person wrote.

Since then, others have come forward with similar allegations. Four current and former Geek Squad technicians in three Best Buy stores who were interviewed by the Minneapolis Star Tribune said they witnessed co-workers pulling up customers' personal photos and urging others to look. Three of the four recall colleagues copying customers' photos onto DVDs and USB drives.

"They're testosterone-driven geeks, and they're going to look around," said Haddock, who worked at a Best Buy store in Santa Clarita, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles. "It's the male prerogative. The temptation is always there."

David O'Hare, a former Geek Squad agent who worked at the Best Buy store in Santa Clarita, said his colleagues illegally copied "thousands of songs," which are protected by copyrights, from customers' computers and stored them on a store computer.

"We probably had 50 to 100 [gigabytes] of music just sitting there for anyone to listen to or copy," said O'Hare, who left Geek Squad a month ago.

Ben Popken, editor of the Consumerist Web site, tried his own experiment. In June, he and a writer at the Consumerist installed software on a desktop computer that tracks every mouse click made by the user. Then they loaded onto the computer photos of attractive young women - including some wearing bikinis.

The Consumerist writer took the computer to Best Buy stores. On the fifth visit, Popken said, the software captured a Geek Squad agent opening the folder and copying the photos to a flash drive, which the Consumerist made into a video.

Stephens, Geek Squad's founder and "chief inspector," is convinced that these are rare occurrences, but nevertheless he is taking them seriously.

"If I were to verify these ... employees, they would be gone - in a minute," he said.

In addition to stringent policies and procedures for guarding customer data, Best Buy has held at least three mandatory training sessions on customer privacy since autumn.

Andrew Coombs, a former Geek Squad agent who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., said that stealing customer data would have been "unthinkable" at the store where he worked in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"Number one, you don't poke around because it's wrong, and it was made very clear to us that was grounds for immediate termination," Coombs said, noting that Best Buy constantly updated the privacy policy. "Number two, you don't have the time."

The company said oversight is particularly stringent at "Geek Squad City," a 165,000-square-foot computer repair facility near Louisville, Ky., where most laptop computers are sent for repairs. Cameras are focused on technicians at all times, and security guards walk the aisles.

Robert Willett, Best Buy's chief information officer, said the company is exploring ways to bring an increased level of oversight to Geek Squad's in-store work areas, though he declined to be specific.

"Let's just say there are ways of monitoring the tech bench," he said.

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