Friday, April 25, 2008

The war on your privacy.

I want you to do a thought experiment. In your head list some of the things you may have on your laptop that you don’t want anybody else to see.

You might immediately think of illegal things and protest. But don’t. Surely there are entirely legal items that you have on your laptop which you wish or need to keep private. Let me list some possibilities to get you going.

Do you have bank account information on your computer? Maybe you have passwords for banking sites which would allow others to transfer your funds if they got hold of them?

You might be a businessman who has classified corporate information on your laptop which, if leaked, might give a competitor an advantage over you and do severe harm.

Maybe you sat down and wrote some highly personal thoughts about aspects of your life. You might have been depressed and wrote about some suicidal thoughts. Or perhaps you wrote about how you cheated on your partner or how they cheated on you. You might have written down fantasies that you never intend to carry out.

Maybe you have some highly personal photos of yourself or your partner.

Once you have your list go to the second part of this thought experiment. How would you feel if you discovered that someone had gone through those items? Would you feel violated? Angry? Disgusted?

Remember I have stipulated that you list items where you have done nothing wrong. With that in mind would you still have highly negative feelings about someone violating your privacy in this way?

After all what kind of low-life would do that to someone? When we discover that people have actually gone through other people’s computers in this manner we would think very poorly of the person who did it. In fact we would probably call it criminal. What kind of scum would do this?

That’s easy to answer. U.S. government border nazis. Here are the facts.

Government border “agents” regularly search the contents of laptops. Now you may remember something about “reasonable cause” being involved when it comes to government searches. Not anymore. The courts have ruled that border thugs don’t need reasonable cause. They may search your lap simply because they don’t like your face.

If a border agent finds a rather attractive model with her lap top coming through he might decide to see if she has any personal photos on her laptop. He can then force her to boot up the laptop and demand that she open any files he requests including information as to her where she lives, her phone number or diaries about sexual encounters if she has them there. If he finds nude photos of her that is sufficient for him to confiscate the computer for a more thorough search -- this in spite of the fact that the photos are entirely legal.

He can then walk off with her laptop and it disappears into the bureaucratic bowels of federal agents. Now nothing illegal may be found. But when our model gets her laptop back, which can be months later, she will never know who copied her photos and passed them around. And the courts say this is all legal.

The government argues that at borders the federal thugs can do anything they want and you have no right to complain. Actually, if they can do whatever they want you have no rights whatsoever. One expert, Mark Rasch, a former head of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit, described the position of the Feds:

The consequences of the government's argument would be that they could, at the border, seize your daughter's iPod and lock her up if they thought the songs were not licensed. They could copy the entire contents of your computer, read your e-mail, medical records, communications with doctors, lawyers, or priests. They could examine deleted files, create a database of your friends and associates, and provide any or all of this information to the CIA, Interpol, the NSA, the FBI, or for that matter, the Iraqi intelligence services. All without probable cause, suspicion, or warrant, because you had the unmitigated gall to cross the border with your laptop.

And don’t think encryption will necessarily help. They also take the position that they may force you to provide the keys to open any encrypted files. In fact, I would bet that they would particularly want to investigate encrypted files.

The government contends that this device called a laptop is exactly like your suitcase. Well, perhaps it would be if you routinely kept all your private correspondence, your banking account details, private photos, and reams and reams of documentation about your life, in your suitcase. Of course you would be over the weight limits so it is unlikely you would do this.

If you have a suitcase sitting out in the open you don’t fill it with you most personal information. But your expectations are that you laptop is private. The government says that all this personal information makes no difference. After all it is reasonable to “protect” the country from . (Fill in the blank with whichever bogey man is the government scare story of the day.)

Mr. Rasch, however, points out that if “protecting the country” makes all such searches reasonable then there is no limit to what the King, I mean the government, may do. But what about flying within the country, where you never cross an international border? Remember that none of the 911 hijackers grabbed an international flight -- they were all on domestic flights. Mr Rasch writes:

A search at the border is permissible because it is "reasonable." It is "reasonable" because the government has a good reason to do it -- to protect the borders. But, just try flying domestically without being patted down and having your luggage examined. Certainly such a "search" on a domestic flight is "reasonable." Oh, and on a train or bus as well. Try entering any federal property, such as a federal office building, military facility, or courthouse. You and your belongings are subject to search, but does this give carte blanche for examining, copying, or analyzing the contents of electronic devices at any of these places? I think not.

While Mr. Rasch might not think government should have such powers remember we are dealing with the Bush Administration. And the Bush team doesn’t believe that government power is limited in any way. Bush has said that he can do anything he damn well pleases just as long as his pea brain tells him that it is for “national security.”

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