Thursday, August 13, 1998 Published at 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
UK Customs check for laptop porn
Customs & Excise software could check your hard disk for porn
By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall
IT journalist Kenneth Neil Cukier found his laptop the target of a Customs and Excise swoop when he stepped off the Eurostar shuttle from Paris at London's Waterloo station last Friday.
The Paris correspondent for CommunicationsWeek International was in the British capital for a one-day editorial strategy meeting. But he was delayed when two customs officers pulled him to one side and took him to an area where other officers were carrying out random searches.
An e-mail tale
Kenn describes what happened next in an e-mail which has been posted on the Internet:
"A customs officer told me to lay my computer bag on the table, and inspected my ticket and passport. After learning I was a reporter, she demanded to see my press card (issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and asked where I was going in London, why, and for how long.
"Do you know there are things that are illegal to bring into the UK?" she asked.
"Uh, yeah ... There are many things that are illegal to bring across borders - do you have in mind any thing in particular?," I said.
"Illegal drugs, fire arms, bomb making materials, lewd and obscene pornographic material...."
I felt a rush of relief. I was late and now was assured I could get on with my journey. "I am carrying none of that," I replied.
"Is that a computer in your bag?"
"Does it have Internet on it?"
Here, I confess, I really didn't know how to answer. What does one say to a question like that? I was struck dumb.
"I use the computer to access the Internet, yes," I said, rather proud of myself for my accuracy.
"Is there any pornography on it?" she said, stoically.
I figured out what's going on. But I'm mentally paralyzed from all the synapses sparkling all at once in my head Does she not understand that Internet content is distributed around the world?
That I'm just dialing a local number, be it in France or the UK, and that whether I cross a border is moot to what I'm able to access?
"There is no pornography stored on the hard drive," I stated.
"Do you mind if I check." she says rather than asks, and begins to take the computer out of the bag.
"I'm just going to hook it up over there and scan the hard drive..." she continues.
And then her face turns dour. "Oh! It's an Apple," she says, dejectedly. "Our scanner doesn't work on Apples."
At this point, it's all a little bit too much, too fast, for me to handle. From seeing my personal privacy ripped out from under me with a computer-enema to an immediate about-face and witnessing my oppressors flounder in the pap of their own incompetence was just too much to bear.
Then, of course, I sort of relished the irony of it all. I swung into naive-mode "Oh. Oh well," I said and began packing up. "Why not?"
"I dunno - it just doesn't," she said.
"Is this a common thing that you do? Scan PCs?"
"It happens quite often," she said.
"Do you catch a lot?"
"Sometimes," she says, cautiously.
" What's the fine? The penalty?" I asked.
She started to become uncomfortable and tried to move me along. "It depends. Every case is different. It depends what they have."
"What about if I had encryption -- do you check for that too?" I said, disdaining the risk that she might want to check the computer "by hand" since I'd mentioned the dreaded C-word....
"Huh?! I don't know about that...."
"You don't know what cryptography is?" I asked.
"No. Thank you, you can go now," she said.
And thus ended my experience with inspector "K. PARE_," whose name tag was partially torn at the final one or two letters of her last name.
Customs & Excise confirms searches
A Customs and Excise spokesman confirmed on Thursday that such random checks were taking place. But he said he could not reveal details of the software being used to check hard drives for pornography or say what it did precisely.
"There's a variety of software we can use and we've been using CD-Rom readers for some time to check disks for pornography," he told me. "We're targeting people who fit particular profiles," he added, without elaborating.
"Technology has moved on and this is us simply keeping abreast of what's happening. We do have some quite sophisticated computer equipment in the department as well as experts who work with our investigation teams."
The spokesman said a number of paedophiles who had downloaded images from the Internet and stored them on their hard disk had been apprehended through Customs work.
But he could not cite any cases of this happening at border inspections. He said discoveries were made mainly by intercepting mail.
"We are asked to protect society from a number of things, including drugs and pornography, and we have the powers to search people and their belongings," he said.
Civil liberties fears
After contacting Kenn by e-mail, he had this reaction:
"I'm not sure what's worse: that the scan is so silly, or that it's so dangerous for our democratic institutions. This really flies in the face of some basic principles of Western society. It's very scary to realize that our principles are so fragile and can be mistreated so easily.
"Scanning one's computer disc - which in a digital age comes close to one's private thoughts - has immense social and political consequences. It's remarkable a policy like that could be instituted without a proper public policy debate. It's really about what type of society we want to live in: Do our governments respect their responsibility as stewards of an open society?
"They can answer that in the negative if they like - but then we're repudiating the values of the Enlightenment, let's be at least clear on that. We can't lose sight of that. The debate over Internet content forces us to consider our values of privacy, free speech and the sanctity of the individual. Wouldn't it be a pity if those hard-won values were shaken by a short-sighted customs guard....
"For me, the most remarkable thing has been the huge amount of e-mail I received after just a couple of hours from when the message was posted on the Internet. The story seems to have really touched a nerve with people. The messages, from all around the world, have been supportive and grateful that I spoke out.
" It's an odd feeling for me - I'm just an ordinary guy who travelled across a border."