Big Brothers Are Watching


Any of you planning to head to Beijing to catch some of the Olympics, take special care with your laptop. The decision by Chinese officials to limit Internet access to journalists and attendees is not the only online challenge the games are presenting.

This Reuters story says that the Chinese are expected to try to spy on computing devices that are brought in. Indeed, Phil Dunkelberger, the CEO of PGP Corp., says people bringing computers to the games should make sure that they are empty. During the unrest in Tibet, he said, Chinese officials monitored communications in an effort to see who the Tibetans were contacting. The story quotes Sen. Sam Brownback as saying that China has installed spying equipment in major hotel chains.

China is not the only nation in which people have to be careful about what the government does in relation to information they carry. In the U.K., the Home Office this spring was considering a plan to create a giant database, according to The Times Online, of "all forms of electronic communications," including e-mail, voice conversations, social networking sites and text messages. The data would be kept for a year and authorities would be able to seek court permission for access to it. The story describes great opposition to the plan and notes a number of security breaches that have impacted Britain.

Earlier this month, of course, President Bush signed new laws that expand the government's surveillance powers and largely indemnified telephone companies from lawsuits stemming from such oversight.

Last week, The Washington Post said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently said that it has the right to confiscate electronic devices for an unspecified amount of time without any indication of wrongdoing on the part of the person carrying the device. The DHS also says that it can share the information on the device with other agencies or private companies for translation, decryption and other reasons.

The move was the logical conclusion of a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that equated electronic devices with briefcases and other physical materials, which can be searched. The practical result to business people is that they are advised not to carry any irreplaceable and timely data on a laptop. Companies can't afford for the one copy of a vital sales presentation to be confiscated at customs.