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."
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 it 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.
Geek Squad is critical to Best Buy's efforts to provide higher-margin services. Driving this change is competition from discount chains such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and falling prices on many consumer electronic items.
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.
But the 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.
Ben Popken, editor of the Consumerist, 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.