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The United States Government....

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Posted 21 January 2007 - 05:38 PM

If you're a US citizen, you've got a lot to worry about when it comes to ever decreasing consumer and privacy rights. Laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and the Patriot Act are scary, and pose a direct threat to the values our nation was founded on. While I've been aware of the rising issues for quite some time now, they never really hit home until yesterday.

I was returning from a pleasure trip to the Dominican Republic. Once we got to Atlanta (the intermediary hub for my trip), I had to go through customs. I gave the immigration agent my (US) passport and stood there waiting for him to stamp it, give it back, and send me on my way like they usually do. Of course, that's not what happened.

He looked at me suspiciously, asked me some personal identifying information (social security number, DOB, middle name, etc) and proceeded to type in his computer for a few minutes. Then he put a giant "B" on my immigration form and asked if I was traveling alone. I said no, that I was traveling with the young lady that he had just cleared through. He looked at her, and she walked back over.. He then put a big "B" on her form too. Great. At this point I had no idea what this was about... and it only got better from there.

The next step in the process is to claim your checked luggage and clear it through customs. For most people that involves handing the agent your form and being sent on your way. Not for me. I walk up to the agent and give him my passport and form and he says "I just need your form here sir, not your passport". So, I give him my form. And then he sees the giant "B". "Oh. Uh oh... I need your passport after all sir." He takes my passport and form and puts them in an envelope, then tells me to follow lane two to the left. I ask him what the "B" means; he responds "Oh, they'll tell you over there." Great, I'm thinking, I hope this doesn't take long.

I walk over and they have me put the folder in a numbered rack and take a seat. This is the area where they fully search your bags, looking for agricultural products, drugs, and who knows what else. It's full of people, and some are getting pretty irate, wondering if the border people will pay for connecting flights missed because they're taking so long. At one point I looked back and saw four agents seemingly doing nothing. Great. (In their defense I'm sure there were doing something, but from the blank look on their faces and lack of activity you'd never guess it). It didn't help that this was a no camera and no cellphone zone, and that everyone and their mother was using a cell phone, trying to explain to family members why they weren't going to be home on time.

Anyways, after 45 minutes or so of nervously sitting in a chair I get called up. The woman that called me told me to leave my bags, and then proceeded to ask me some identifying information again (SS number, Middle name...). Then she asked me a very odd question: "What do you do for a living, Adam?". The question itself wasn't so odd, but they way she asked it was. I replied "Well, I'm a student at Colorado College.." Apparently that wasn't a satisfactory answer for her though, as she replied, prodding for more information "Just a student? You don't do.. anything else?" I answered, saying that I also ran a small business. From there the conversation went like this:

Her: "And what does your business do?"
Me: "I sell game console parts, accessories, and upgrades."
Her: "Is that all you sell?"
Me: "Uhm... yes?"
Her: "You don't sell any 'chips'?"
Me (Knowing perfectly well what she meant, though it's always good to clarify because for all I know she means potato chips): "What kind of chips?"
Her: "You tell me."
Me: "I sell some microchips I suppose..."
Her: "And are these chips illegal?"
Me: "Well, it's a legal grey area due to the DMCA, but no, I don't think they are."
Her: "Ok sir, go sit back down."

Uhm, right.. so at this point I'm a bit baffled. I just can't believe their stopping me at the BORDER because I sell modchips. I suppose that means I've garnered the attention of someone pretty high up there in our oh so wonderful government, and that made me feel like.. an important person or something. Definitely an ego booster.

Well, I go sit back down and wait to be called again. After another half hour or so of waiting they call me up again (Thank God we had a 3 hour layover...). At this point a gentleman asks us to put our bags on the belt and proceeds to do a search. He starts with my friend's bags, not really doing a very thorough search. Then he gets to mine and goes through everything with a fine toothed comb. As he's searching, another agent walks by and sees that I have my hands in my pockets (Oh No!). He YELLS at me to remove my hands from my pocket immediately, reaching for his gun as he says this. Needless to say, I comply immediately. Excuse me for being nervous.

I ask if this is going to happen every time I cross the border, to which he kind of dances around the question by replying that if this is my first time being searched I'm lucky (It's certainly not by the way; I get searched all the time crossing the border... Just not like this.). When I ask him if this is about my business, he looks at me and says "Who said it was about your business?" I informed him that the lady before had been questioning me about it. He replied, clearly lying "Well, I don't really know what it's about...", going on to ask me questions about my business (How long I've been doing it, what I did, etc).

He continues to search. I have a few bottles of booze in my checked bag, that we had won on our stay in the Dominican, which he sets aside but lets me keep (for reasons unknown to me since I'm most definitely under 21... I wonder if he realized his blunder after he let us go tongue.gif).

He seemed most interested in my computer bag though, in which I had my 15" MacBook Pro and 400GB external hard drive and various other technological gadgets. He takes out the hard drive and asks what it is and why I brought it. I respond "Well, it has my music on it, and some of my video projects..." He sets it aside suspicious of it, and takes out my computer, asking me to turn it on. I inform him that the battery is dead and that we'll have to plug it in. He finds and outlet that the xray machine shares and we plug it in. After it boots up, he is greeted by my (incredibly messy) desktop.

He asks me to "Open up the icon for your website". I look at him, and inform him that I don't have an "icon" for my website. The closest I have to what I think he means is an image with the letters OTB in it. I open it for him. He asks me what my website address is, and I inform him that it's otbmods.com. He then goes on to stare at my desktop (which currently has 195 items on it...) for a good 5 minutes, seemingly combing it for.. something. I ask him if he's looking for anything in specific and if he wants help finding anything, to which he replies "No, that's alright". Then he tells me to shut down the computer, and walks into a back room with our passports.

At this point I'm pretty sure he's going to seize my computer... I mean, he has three options really... 1) Arrest me, 2) Seize my computer and hard drive, or 3) Let us go. I'm hoping for the 3rd, but given his tone and the circumstances of the whole thing, I'm definitely thinking he's going to seize my computer (which I would NOT be happy about).

He returned from the back room about 10 minutes later and gave us back our passports, informing us that we were free to go, at which point I packed up my stuff and took off like a bat out of hell before they changed their minds.

I guess I'm going to have to start locking down my computer files and safeguarding my data better now, in the event that some government agency does decide they want to seize my computer and/or search through my files. It's not that I have anything all that incriminating on here, but I do have things like customer databases and thousands of emails, and other things that could easily be abused should they fall into the wrong hands. From a current Wired article:

Computers pose special Fourth Amendment search problems because they pack so much information in such a small, monolithic physical form. As a result, courts are grappling with how to protect privacy rights during searches of computers.

Three digital search topics in particular are converging in interesting, and foreboding, ways.

First, there are several new cases that suggest that agents can search computers at the border (including international airports) without reasonable suspicion or a warrant, under the routine border search exception to the warrant requirement.

Second, a recent case in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that private employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy, and thus no Fourth Amendment rights, in their workplace computers (gulp!).

Third and finally, the 9th Circuit is struggling, and failing, to define ways to judicially supervise police searches of computers to ensure that law enforcement gets the information it needs, while leaving undisturbed any private information on unrelated matters that may be on the same disk drive.
Given the sensitivity of information stored on a computer, the way people tend to archive everything, how long a comprehensive search takes and the likelihood of discovering contraband with such a search, courts may well find that computer searches are allowed at the border only based on reasonable suspicion, not as a baseless fishing expedition.
Similarly, defense attorneys in United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing have asked the 9th Circuit for a new hearing, and the court has an opportunity to issue a more careful opinion in that case, which arose from the Balco doping scandal.

The government is investigating whether 10 professional baseball players were illegally taking steroids. In the course of its probe, it obtained multiple warrants for the results of drug tests taken by the players. But it didn't just seize the results for the players under scrutiny -- it grabbed the entire database, with samples from hundreds of other athletes.

Lower courts ordered the government to return the information that was not related to the Balco-linked players, but the government appealed and the 9th Circuit ruled in its favor.

We live in some scary times my friends. The potential for abuse of power and loss of rights is becoming frighteningly high. The society outlined in George Orwell's 1984 is becoming more and more a reality every day. Lets make sure we don't lose the rights this country was founded with before it's too late.

Edited by appleguru, 21 January 2007 - 09:09 PM.

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