Rear Left

Sloppy Searching

Posted in Personal/Meta, The Law is an Ass by rearleft on May 10, 2009

I try not to be an alarmist, but you’d be paranoid too if you knew they were watching you.

Last week, my partner, baby daughter, and I got on a plane at Los Angeles International Airport bound for Sydney, Australia. I’ve spent most of the past decade in the US, and we plan on residing in Australia for the next couple of years. Between her stuff, my stuff, and the baby’s stuff we had a large amount of baggage that we were happy to pay the excess fees on because it was faster and cheaper to carry it with us than to pay for shipping. The biggest and heaviest thing on our two trolleys was a G5 tower in a Pelican case. After a fair amount of back and forth with the airline staff over whether or not they’d carry a case so heavy, I was very relieved to see it come around the baggage claim carousel in Sydney with all our other stuff.

Fast forward a week to this morning. I’d finally gotten together all the peripherals needed to get the computer up and running (monitor, keyboard, mouse, power adaptor). A friend had warned me to pull the hard drives out before the flight, and to carry them with me, because there was a small chance that they could jiggle around in transit and get damaged. In my rush to deal with everything on my way out of the US, I’d neglected to do that, so my heart sank when I powered up and saw the dreaded system folder question mark on startup.


(NB: not exactly like above, but it’s the best .gif i could find)

Trying not to panic, I tried starting up from the system install disk, but that looked like it wanted to install the operating system and I was afraid it would format the drives. Then tried starting up with the Applecare Tech Tool Deluxe disk, but that didn’t really do anything. Starting to assume the worst by this stage: jiggling damage might have occurred, or maybe some sort of demagnetization wiped the drives.

The tower has two drives in it: the factory installed startup drive and a 500GB internal drive that I put in to keep media on. Clutching at straws, I thought I’d try opening the tower up, pull out the media drive and seewhat happened. When I did this I noticed that the lever that holds the media drive in its bay was open. That was a pretty good tip off that some sort of search had been done on the computer that involved pulling the drives out. My suspicion was confirmed when I found that the reason the computer couldn’t find the system folder was that the startup drive had apparently not been plugged back in after the drives were pulled out!

The computer was on the same flight as us, and there was only about an hour between when I dropped the bags off at security and when we took off, so my assumption is that US border agents yanked the drives, copied them for a later search, and then very sloppily replaced them. Now, I don’t really have anything to be concerned about them finding on there, but it’s very disconcerting to think that they now have a copy of every email I’ve sent in the past few years, my address books, calendars, web histories, etc.

Last year the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a previous ruling on searches of laptops and other electronic devices at the US borders. That case involved a guy accused of bringing child pornography, but its effect is that searches are permissible on anyone’s devices with no requirement of suspicion of wrongdoing. I’d really like to know what they did with my data. I can only imagine some federal agent is poring over my emails and trying out search terms in the hope of nabbing a superterrorist mastermind.

I’ve always resisted the temptation to do a FOIA request, but I guess it might be time to try and get a grip on what their files on me look like now that they have all of mine.


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