Thursday, July 12, 2007

Why the Geek Squad Scandal Is Worse than Stealing Porn

Consumerist created a lot of buzz recently by setting up a sting operation to confirm reports that Geek Squad, the computer repair company, was taking the opportunity of temporarily possessing customers' computers to surreptitiously swipe media files. To catch a technician in the act, the watchdog blog "loaded a computer with porn and rigged it to make a video of itself." In the video, we see the cursor, representing where the technician is moving his mouse, open folders and copy files to a standard-issue Geek Squad thumb drive. According to Consumerist, this unauthorized copying is a pervasive problem throughout Geek Squad and at other computer repair places. Consumerist billed the problem as "Geek Squad Stealing Porn," and this same framing was used by blogs and the mainstream media as they picked up on the story.

Maybe that Geek Squad tech was copying porn that had been downloaded from the net. At one point in the video Consumerist posted documenting the sting, we see the tech looking over his spoils, and he appears to have copied what the narrator calls "pornographic videos." But what's much more disturbing is that he appears to copy personal photographs in the same way.

Look how Consumerist baited the tech. This is a screenshot of the desktop on the laptop the website set up specifically to attract an unauthorized porn grab. (In computing parlance, this type of computer trap is called a honeypot.) Here the desktop wallpaper is an image of three young, attractive women, wearing lots of makeup and dressed in a sexy but not entirely scandalous way. It's the kind of wallpaper the stereotypical sorority girl might have, and that's exactly the point. It's designed to show the tech in one quick glance that the owner of this computer is a sexy party girl, that she has sexy party girl friends, that they get dressed up sexy and go out to parties, and that they take pictures of themselves when they go.

Even the order form the store required its customer to fill out must have suggested that this computer would be a perfect target, loaded with personal photographs: Consumerist answered the standard survey, indicating the computer was personal (circled and underlined), that it would be used to burn music and movies and to print photographs, and that photography is the most desired capability, ranked with the highest score, followed by video and music ranked in the middle. This customer, the form implies, is going to load her computer with personal photos.

And photos are exactly what the tech looks for. He immediately scans the desktop folders whose names include the words pics or pictures and determines that they are the first quarry worth copying to his USB drive. In particular, he picks out folders with suggestive names—that is, names that suggest not pornography but personal, sexy pictures. Here the screenshot catches the Geek Squad tech copying a picture folder named "out clubbin!!!" It's a folder name that, directly and implicitly through style and punctuation, says, "Here's where I store pictures of myself and my hot friends wearing skimpy clothes, getting drunk, and doing stupid things."

The tech is presumably satisfied when he actually finds sexy personal photos. In one scene from Consumerist's video, when the tech is looking over what he found, he does find some porn. But before he even looks for porn itself, he opens a photo file. From eight planted photos depicting a beach vacation, the tech chooses one to open for a closer look: the one that depicts a woman, presumably the laptop's owner or a friend, standing in the surf wearing a bikini. This isn't porn, but to a horny male computer user (or a group thereof, if this file's destination is a communal server) it serves a similar purpose.

That's the darker side to what Geek Squad is doing here. This isn't just an image the customer looks at—it's an image of herself. If you own pornography, either on your hard drive or under your mattress, of course you want to keep it private. Whatever else pornography is, for most people its role in life is a private one. But how much more private are pictures of yourself wearing skimpy clothes, doing generally naughty things, or even appearing naked? We keep the sexy pictures we look at close, but we keep the sexy pictures we're in even closer.

The horror of what Geek Squad did isn't the idea that a stranger knows what you've been getting off to. It's that the stranger is getting off to you.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'd like to meet those girls

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I'm in the wrong type of job...

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Think in terms of the new EMI DRM-free music. If these indeed have purchaser information in them, and tech companies like Geek Squad steal these and trade them on P2P, some poor schmuck is going to end up with RIAA lawyers crawling up their butts.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Elaine Vigneault said...

Yet another example of the web's panopticon and how it keeps women in line.

People act differently when they're being watched. They act differently when they're being photographed. They act differently when they know the photograph of them is going to wind up all over the web. Basically, women have NO safe zone where we can be ourselves without someone trying to steal a piece of us.

12:10 AM  
Blogger The Good Reverend said...

Good point, Elaine, and thanks for the kind words at Feministing. There you mentioned wanting to bring out more the effect of this on women's lives; I'd love to hear more of what you think about that.

2:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's sick. They're abusing their positions to steal and perv on people's private material? There's already a ton of that stuff already available on the Net; this just proves that they get off on not just the photos themselves, but procuring them illegally, without permission, without consent.

5:32 PM  
Blogger amandaw said...

That is... creepy as fuck. Much more disturbing than stealing porn files. Having an excessively horny young dude share porn files might embarrass you, but it's not an invasion of privacy on the same level as stealing your personal pictures to wank off to.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ever since I took my pc in to the Geek Squad after it crashed, I've noticed a multitude of files on my pc that I can not access. I am the only user on my pc and I have full admin rights yet I can't save anything to my primary Program Files folder nor can I access certain files.
Is it possible that they could have installed a program on my pc that copies and saves everything that I create? And yes.. I had "sexy" pics in my pc when it crashed

4:07 AM  
Blogger Smileysue74 said...

I'm getting warnings that I should back up and replace my hard drive because it's about to crash.
~~~~which means I'll be taking my laptop back to the Geeksquad..
So, um.. do I erase everything? I don't want them having access to my pics, videos, chat archives, saved passwords, etc. etc.. blah blah blah..
HELP! I'm not sure how much longer I have before my laptop crashes..

8:26 PM  
Blogger Cheno said...

I am pretty sure that this is a difinitive lie. You have no stable proof that a Geek Squad Representative did that. Plus, Yeah, Its like the Geek squad rep took a screenie of him/herself transfering files. Think logically everyone. Anyone can rename a flash drive to Geek Squad, and take a screenie of themselves coping a file to it. When you have some true proof, then I will believe this.

9:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geeks in Minutes

1:42 AM  
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6:07 PM  

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