Digital World: Civil rights takes a vacation?

You may have files on your computer that could get you detained and fined if you're visiting the United States.

handcuffs 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
handcuffs 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Would you be willing to sacrifice some liberties or privileges in return for a safer world? While citizens of countries around the world have differing opinions on that issue, governments have already made the choice for them - and it's always been a resounding "yes." Anyone can have an opinion on anything. But in almost every country in the world, even the most "free," there are restrictions on what one can say or do in public; like revealing national security secrets, or urging people not to pay taxes (that one really gets governments mad). Now, in the age of digital danger, governments have been clamping down on electronic devices - such as laptop computers - that may contain illegal or otherwise illicit information. Can digital "information" be illegal or illicit? Sure. A terrorist could be carrying plans for constructing a bomb out of household materials, to be delivered to members of a sleeper cell somewhere; ditto for plans to rob a bank or engage in other criminal activity (that would be called "conspiracy to commit" in an indictment; and it's also against the law to possess certain types of pornography, like child porn. In most countries where the citizenry is free enough and wealthy enough to travel between destinations by plane, carrying laptop computers or other electronic devices puts the issue of sacrificing liberties into much sharper focus. While citizens of specific countries are entitled to certain protections (such as police requiring a warrant to search your belongings), those protections don't necessarily extend to citizens of other countries. After 9/11, no one wants to take chances when it comes to airline travel; hence, all of the security regulations, including requirements to throw away all liquids, taking off shoes when passing through security inspections and demands that travelers turn on their computers - all in order to be sure that it really is a computer, and not a bomb. In fact, laptop inspections are de rigueur when entering a number of countries, especially if you've been "profiled" as fitting a suspicious pattern. Most law-abiding people have no problem with any of these regulations. While they are inconvenient, it's reasonable to expect governments to be concerned that terrorists may be trying to sneak onto a plane with weapons, or transmit sensitive documents or plans that could lead to death and destruction. And few of us would have much sympathy with people who abuse children, sexually or otherwise. But there are other laws that apply to digital data, and a forced inspection at a border crossing that would reveal this information might prove to be very troublesome indeed. What about violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA ( You may have files on your computer that could get you detained and fined if you're visiting the United States. What could happen? According to this helpful page from Oswego College in New York (, violations of the DMCA "could impose civil and criminal penalties including fines, jail time, and lawyer's fees. Note that the minimal per instance fine associated with copyright infringement for civil penalties is $750.00 and criminal penalties can go as high as $250,000 per instance and five years in prison." Per instance of what? According to the page, the law applies to music files downloaded and shared with "(P2P) programs like Kazaa, Bit Torrent, Gnutella, or Limewire." Could it really happen? Would a visitor to the US really be detained, fined or worse for having music or movie files on their laptop? While it's hard to imagine someone being arrested for such a thing, it's not unthinkable that the offense could result in the seizure of a laptop as evidence. The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF ( has filed a lawsuit over border searches for individuals entering the US (, and petitioned Congress to do something to stop it ( With the Recording Industry Association of America suing dozens of people for violations of the DMCA (, it's not inconceivable that they would seek to set some examples among travelers with copyrighted files on their laptops or other devices - just to show everyone they mean business. Note that even US citizens can be convicted for possession of illicit material discovered during a border search of a laptop (; what chance do you have if you aren't even an American? Of course, you have nothing to worry about, because you have no such illicit files on your computer - you certainly acquired your music and movies legally. But try and prove that to the customs inspector. If you don't carry copies of receipts with you, it's your word against "the authorities" - and the chances that you may lose your device to the evidence bin while your story is checked out is not unthinkable. Not to mention the guffaws of inspectors as they read your e-mail or check out the silly sites cached by your Web browser. Or, if they find something they can zero in on (everyone wants to be a hero, after all), the embarrassment of being detained or worse. So what can you do? Well, there are tools you can use to hide - encrypt - portions of your hard drive. The EFF has a list of tips on how to ensure that agents don't find stuff you don't want them to when they investigate your device (, although the site reminds us that "lying to a federal law enforcement officer about material facts is a crime, so if you choose to answer a question about whether there are additional encrypted partitions, you are obligated to answer truthfully." The best encryption tool turns out to be Truecrypt (, an encryption program that offers two levels of protection - encrypting a disk within an outer encryption, meaning that even if you are asked to de-encrypt a partition, your "real" partition remains encrypted, wrapped in the first de-encrypted partition. Besides being free and multi-platform (Windows Vista/XP, Mac OS X, and Linux), it's got a host of other features as well, such as the ability to encrypt a USB flash drive. Of course, the real "bad guys" could also take advantage of Truecrypt or other encryption programs to hide their secrets, which would be bad for the rest of us. But that's a facile argument for repression; we don't put people in jail in advance of their crimes, do we (