If Best Buy is collaborating with the government to spy on your computer, is that a bad thing? What if the alternative was even worse?

Most of us associate the Best Buy Geek Squad with local teams of technicians working locally. But sometimes serious cases, such as broken hard drives needing data recovery, go to “Geek Squad City”, a central repair facility.

Sometimes when a computer drive breaks, the data is still all there, perfect intact on the actual disks inside the drive. It’s just that the electronics hooked up to the storage, that enable the computer to read that data, gets broken. Other times some of the disks are damaged, but others can be read. In situations like these, a facility like Geek Squad City can get data from a “broken” drive, sometimes even all of it.

So what do you do if you’re Best Buy in the event that a customer gives you his disk to recover the data, and you find you’re being asked to handle and recover child pornography? Well, Best Buy has been reporting it to the FBI.

What do you do if you’re at the FBI, tasked with fighting child pornographers, and you find out a major national chain has a facility dedicated to scanning hard drives, one that fairly regularly finds child pornography? Well, that’s where it gets murky.

Depending who you believe, either FBI has been giving reward money to Best Buy employees who report the stuff, or has paid informants looking for criminal activity while on the job at Best Buy. The case for the latter is unclear though.

Critics say that Best Buy is finding “data in unallocated space,” which means files that were created and stored on the system but deleted. When computers delete files, typically they don’t erase the contents. They just mark the space as available to be overwritten. Except when restoring a drive or a system, sometimes you have to scan unallocated space to find important data, so that in itself is not evidence that Best Buy is snooping for the sake of snooping.

Naturally all of this is being exposed, and spun in the most negative possible way, by a child pornographer who was caught dead to rights, and is trying to wriggle out of paying for his crimes on a technicality.

I would caution against trying to generalize from this case, or trying to make it political at all. These are disgusting people dragging innocent third parties into it by having them see and recover their child pornography, but then getting offended when those third parties call the FBI instead. This is a strange and hard case. We don’t want to try to make good law from it.