Pornography

File Keepers

The government wants to sit on your laptop

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If someone develops a practical mind-reading device, you can expect the Department of Homeland Security to argue that skulls are merely another "closed container" that officers guarding the border may search at will. After all, government agents have long been allowed to read documents in briefcases carried by Americans returning from abroad. Why should the medium in which information is stored make a constitutional difference?

That argument is only slightly more far-fetched than the one DHS uses to justify its policy regarding border searches of laptop computers. Given the nature and quantity of the data they contain, portable computers are in many ways extensions of our brains. Yet DHS is treating them as if they were no different from purses or fruitcake tins.

Recently publicized DHS guidelines confirm that the department for years has been examining the contents of computers at airports and other points of entry "absent individualized suspicion." The guidelines say officers "may detain documents and electronic devices, or copies thereof, for a reasonable period of time to perform a thorough border search," which "may take place on-site or at an off-site location."

In practice, this means a customs agent can seize your computer for any reason or no reason at all. He may rummage through your files while you stand there, hoping nothing embarrassing pops up, or he may take the computer to a back room. It may disappear for weeks or months as its contents are copied, analyzed, and shared with various federal agencies trying to determine whether you've broken any laws.

DHS won't say how common these searches are. But when the Association of Corporate Travel Executives surveyed its members in February, 7 percent of the respondents said their laptops or other electronic devices had been seized.

As anyone whose computer has been stolen or irreparably damaged can testify, it's a traumatic experience to suddenly lose this crucial repository of your personal and professional life, which may include confidential work in progress; sensitive financial, medical, and educational records; and years of photos, music, notes, journal entries, and correspondence. Knowing that government agents are perusing and passing around this information makes the experience even less pleasant, especially when you realize that your hard drive also contains traces of files you've deleted and websites you've visited.

But according to DHS, all that's necessary to make this enormously inconvenient and invasive search "reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment is your decision to take your computer with you to another country. In April the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed, reversing a lower court decision that said such searches require "reasonable suspicion," a belief based on "specific and articulable facts," along with "rational inferences" drawn from them.

This standard, substantially less demanding than the "probable cause" necessary for a warrant, is not very hard to satisfy. In fact, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff claims the department already follows it. "As a practical matter, travelers only go to secondary [examination] when there is some level of suspicion," he writes in a July 16 USA Today op-ed piece. But he warns that "legislation locking in a particular standard would have a dangerous, chilling effect as officers' often split-second assessments are second-guessed."

It's worth emphasizing that Chertoff is talking about searches for incriminating data, not searches for bombs or other imminent threats. He says computer searches have turned up "violent jihadist material" as well as "scores of instances of child pornography." He does not say how many, if any, terrorist plots have been foiled. As electronic privacy expert Peter Swire points out, even a "moderately well-informed" terrorist can easily avoid detection by emailing encrypted data to himself or using software that hides files.

Judging from Chertoff's statements and the legal record, the government is using fear of terrorism to justify extraordinarily invasive, suspicionless searches in the service of ordinary police work. In these circumstances, the real danger is the absence of second-guessing.

© Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. I’m currently on a business trip in Dublin, and as always I’m taking three precautions when traveling with my work laptop:

    1. Server backup – all files are automatically saved on the company servers, not on my laptop. This prevents a would-be thief (be it an unlicensed crook or the DHS) from stealing company data.

    2. TrueCrypt – All temporary files are stored in a hidden encrypted partition.

    3. Hard drive scrub – All deleted data is scrubbed.

    This is our company policy, and it’s been in place way before the DHS laptop thefts hit the news.

  2. TrueCrypt is a great tool for everyone to have. It is much better than having either Vista’s or OS X’s built in HD encryption. You can encrypt a file and then delete the TrueCrypt program, nobody will know what that file is. Of course, not everything needs to be encrypted.

  3. Imagine if there were no such device as a laptop but that you eccentrically traveled with copies of all your personal correspondence, invoices for all personal purchases, and all your financial records. Then imagine DHS goons seizing them, passing them around, and reading through them at their leisure, making copies, then finally returning them some months later.

    And, of course, having announced this policy in advance, DHS is puzzled that they never catch any terrorists or terrorist suspects with this massive violation of civil liberties, just as they’ve never caught any terrorists with airport searches and never will. Naturally, DHS cites this as proof that the searches are working.

  4. Jozef – admirable security, my man. Especially if it is set up by professionals, so that there truly are no local saves and all of your temp files are encrypted and hidden.

  5. But he warns that “legislation locking in a particular standard would have a dangerous, chilling effect as officers’ often split-second assessments are second-guessed.”

    Your laptop just got seized because some DHS twat made a “split second assessment”. Do you feel safer now?

  6. It’s worth emphasizing that Chertoff is talking about searches for incriminating data, not searches for bombs or other imminent threats. He says computer searches have turned up “violent jihadist material” as well as “scores of instances of child pornography.”

    Just move along. No slippery slope here.

  7. I’m overseas with my laptop right now. I hope the DHS seizes my laptop. I plan on being militant as hell.

  8. USB hard drives, people. Leave the sensitive stuff at home.

  9. If there really were “scores of instances of child pornography”, where are the announced prosecutions? I haven’t noticed Federal prosecutors to be shy about such things. Child porn is vile, but hardly as prevalent as the authorities would have you believe.

    As for DHS stealing business data, that’s far less of a concern than extreme inconvenience of losing the laptop itself, which almost certainly cannot be replaced within the narrow time window of most business trips.

  10. You completely misunderstand this policy. The problem is that the Dept. of Homeland Security has a long list of laptops that have mysteriously gone missing from various Federal agencies. All of them of course contain sentive and personal information, like social security numbers, credit card #’s, secret surveillance data that is not supposed to exist, etc.

    The purpose of the detain policy is simply to see if the laptop is on the “Gov’t Lost” list. They considered putting the list of missing laptops on the back of milk cartons, or maybe using the thousands of fancy remote programmable highway signs that were recently purchased with your tax dollars and usually display nothing but an 800 number, but they decided this would work better. That’s it.

  11. legislation locking in a particular standard would have a dangerous, chilling effect as officers’ often split-second assessments are second-guessed.”

    It’s a sad day that we’ve come to the place where our lives are ruled by “officers’ often split-second assessments”. I know I feel safer.

  12. He says computer searches have turned up “violent jihadist material” as well as “scores of instances of child pornography.”

    Here in Maine they are considering outsourcing searching for child porn to the Geek Squad.

    Computer repairmen might have to report child porn

  13. So what happens if you encrypt the whole hard drive with truecrypt and refuse to give the fascists the password?

    And, if I’m understanding this situation correctly, why do they need to take the whole laptop rather than just the hard drive?

  14. “Here in Maine they are considering outsourcing searching for child porn to the Geek Squad.”

    The sad truth is that the techs at Best Buy may be even less trustworthy than the Feds.

  15. All of you have it all wrong. The Gov’t computers, networks and communication devices don’t work for crap and they can’t get the appropriations committee to give them the money required to fix it. So, DHS created this policy (the confiscation of laptops, PDAs, iPods, cell phones, et. all) as a means of finally getting equipment that actually works.
    I also expect them to create a new policy in the very near future that allows them to confiscate any IT person that travel across borders (without cause, based on hair length and speaking technobabel) because they’re going to need someone who can setup/configure and teach these idiots how to use all of stuff they’ve stolen.

  16. Well, all I can say is that I better not get my laptop back with splooge all over the screen. Giggity Giggity!!

  17. The 9th Circus strikes another blow for freedom! This is a perfect case for SCOTUS.

    The author mentioned a practical mind reading device? Has it arrived? Check out page 19, “Lighting Up the Lies”, on Scientific American, Aug 08

    Here’s the link:
    http://www5.mygazines.com/magazines/view/1053

  18. I think if you refuse to give them the passwords they can probably refuse you entry into the United States.

    If this might be a problem for you, you might look into a program called rubberhose. This program not only encrypts the data but hides it. It also allows you to provide a password or three that all unlock more data for the feds if they ask you to. All the while you can keep your secret data secret.

    The name comes from the fact that you have data to release if beaten with a rubber hose and the guy doing the beating has no way to know if he’s done.

    Now if you really are going to face a rubber hose you might want a product that can provide a guarantee to the guy torturing you that he can stop.. this product doesn’t do that.

  19. This is just a further extension of the current administration’s mentality that modern technology isn’t real enough to warrant attention that applies to actual physical objects, whether that means modernizing infrastructure or protecting fourth amendment rights.
    Let’s just ask ourselves a few questions. Twenty years ago, where did a person store all of their personal information? In a filing system or other similar repository. What did it take for the government to get into that information? A search warrant. Where does a person store all their personal information today? His computer. How can the government get around 4th amendment protections to access that information easily? Refuse to acknowledge the substantive reality of the information; try to pretend it’s something less real or important than files in a file cabinet sitting in our home containing the exact same information.
    Someone call Pen & Teller, because the artificial distinction between physical and digital information is…

  20. Judging from Chertoff’s statements and the legal record, the government is using fear of terrorism to justify extraordinarily invasive, suspicionless searches in the service of ordinary police work. In these circumstances, the real danger is the absence of second-guessing.

    The foregoing paragraph closed this article. Seems to me that “fear of terrorism” or just plain “fear” is more and more being used by government to perpetrate the blatant rape of individual rights in this country.

  21. If your laptop was stolen, you can use a service like Gmail to trace the IP address of the thief. You can log into those services from any computer and trace the IP. For tips and suggestions visit http://www.acersupportnumber.c…..ndows-10/.

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