Infinite Seizure - Database Weekly (2008/8/4)

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When I saw this story, I was a little amazed, especially for a story about the US, but perhaps it's not so far fetched given our current US government. It was announced this week that US Agents can seize laptops and other electronic devices and hold them indefinitely. I'm not sure if this means Department of Homeland Security or US Customs agents, but it means that entering the country carries a whole new level of risk.

I've written before about Nicholas Negroponte's assertion years ago (in Being Digital) that his laptop was worth 2 million dollars when questioned by customs officials. The officials were skeptical since it looked like an ordinary laptop computer, but Dr. Negroponte explained "It's the bits" that are worth millions.

I may not be anywhere near as famous as Dr. Negroponte, but I think my bits are priceless. I'm not sure what value I'd put on them, but I can't easily replace many of the bits that I create inside my computers and hard drives. And they're not necessarily re-creatable. I have lost writings before and while I might have an idea of what I wrote, I can't recreate the bits. I'm sure many authors out there feel the same way.

I don't want this to turn into a political rant, though I'll say I think indefinite seizure of property should not be allowed in any country, especially the US, which loudly proclaims its freedoms. However this does mean there are some very interesting implications for travel. I try to avoid leaving the US, or even Denver, if possible, but I'm likely to go at some point and that means returning to the US could be an issue.

The policy supposedly exists to fight terrorism, a worth goal, but it could easily be abused and who can say what creates a suspicion of terrorism? Is it brown skin, like me? Is it actions? Is it a sticker on your laptop with foreign language text? There's no way to know, which means it's open to interpretation by each individual agent. I would hope multiple people would agree, but still there doesn't appear to be much recourse if you lose your laptop.

I have also hear that the policy is intended to help catch drug smugglers and copyright/trademark violators. Now that's one that scares me. Do they need to check all my PDFs and MP3s to see if I have valid licenses? How do they determine that and what if they make a mistake? What does a technical professional do without his or her laptop? Carry a spare in your checked luggage? They might seize that.

C|Net published a guide to customs-proofing your laptop, mainly by encrypting the disk. That is a double-edged sword as an encrypted drive might be seized on general principle. That reminds me of the cold war standoffs: they can't read your data, but you can't have your laptop.

Personally I am considering moving an image to a VM, after all I can easily convert my machine to a VM, and then downloading it across the border, traveling with a laptop that has a base image on it and nothing else. It won't prevent them from taking my laptop, but I can replace that and then load my data on it when I arrive.

Steve Jones

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