Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Musing: Computer Search

I was awakened this morning in the Port of Auckland by some pretty loud knocking on my cabin door. I rolled out of bed to answer it and was confronted by two very large men in blue uniforms who announced themselves simply as "Customs" then invited themselves into my cabin. As one of them proceeded to look in every drawer, closet and potential hiding space, the other sat down on my couch and opened up my Mac.

I am not the quickest at waking up, but seeing a stranger molest my beloved Mac got me revved up fast. I ignored the guy going through my belongings -- I haven't got anything that's even remotely on any forbidden items list -- but said "What the hell are you doing?" to the guy pawing my Mac. His reply was, "I'm looking for anything that is prohibited by The Act." I didn't -- and still don't -- know what "The Act" is, so I asked "Like what?" but received no reply. In the silence, I figured "The Act" must have something to do with censorship of pornography, illegal copyrighted works, etc. Since I don't have anything of the kind on my Mac, I figured I could either make a stink on principle or just let him do what he wanted. Curious more than anything about what his search would involve, I decided to just let it play out. To get the best possible view of his procedure -- and to make sure he didn't do any damage -- I sat on the couch next to him, folded my arms and just watched.

By the way he got stuck looking at the Finder menus, it was immediately obvious to me that he was unfamiliar with Macs and may never have even seen one before in his life. This impression was confirmed when he asked me, "Where's the Start Menu?" I barely suppressed laughing out loud and replied "What's a Start Menu?" Although I had probably illuminated the divide between the PC and Mac cultures in the most succinct way possible -- and implied that I was not about to help him do his evil deed -- he nevertheless proceeded to ask me, "How do you search for things on this?"

Now, here is where it started getting fun -- at least for me. You will note that he didn't ask me how he could search for things on my Mac -- to which the answer would have been to use the Mac's amazing Spotlight feature -- but instead asked me how I do it. My answer was, in truth, "I don't search. I know where everything is." With a sigh which conveyed his realization that I was neither going to resist his intrusion nor be helpful to him, he double clicked on a few of the folder icons on my desktop and was rewarded with Finder windows containing the folders within folders within folders that is the hallmark of my highly organized and structured file hierarchy. Obviously not finding a folder entitled "double click here to see all my illicit files" -- and probably not wanting to admit he was clueless -- he browsed around for a while then closed the lid.

Although some subsequent Q&A about my itinerary for New Zealand and my travels in general lightened up the "conversation" enough that my encounter with "The Man" from New Zealand Customs ended amicably, we didn't get to a point where I felt comfortable asking the question that was foremost on my mind: "Does searching people's computers actually get you anything? Or is it just an arbitrary and capricious activity enforcing a stupid law promulgated by mindless legislators who don't really have a clue about computers?"

You can probably see why we I didn't think our nascent relationship would support that level of "sharing."

The question still bugs me, though, and it is the point of this Musing: Does searching computers actually accomplish the seizure of prohibited material? I doubt that it does because I suspect that it can't.

Granted, "The Man's" lack of facility with my Mac may have hindered his usual effectiveness, but I really can't image he would be any more successful with a PC. Unless someone has a folder on their desktop entitled "Illicit Media" an in-depth browsing of folders/directories would be necessary. Though I am aware that some people are just stupid, I have to seriously doubt that many people would keep such material "in the clear." Similarly, unless someone uses clearly incriminating filenames, a context search isn't going to yield any results either. So, how likely is it that a superficial browsing is going to accomplish anything? I don't think it can.

The bigger problem, of course, is that such a search completely ignores far more likely "hiding places." For one, how about other user accounts -- or even partitions -- on the same system. I have several user accounts on my Mac that I access for different purposes. The one "The Man" was browsing happened to be my "Macgellan" account which is "all business." Although I don't happen to have anything illicit in my other user accounts either, he was either completely unaware of their existence -- perhaps even unaware that they could even exist -- or he didn't care to check them. His search didn't and couldn't find anything there.

I also have a 120 GB external hard drive that was sitting in the desk drawer which he never saw, accessed or even asked for. I don't presume to really know the mind of a "criminal" but I do know that illicit media requires big files which are frequently stored on big external drives rather than on small laptop drives. I could be wrong, of course, but I would suspect most "bad" stuff is kept on remote media that doesn't get looked at. Superficially browsing a computer can't find anything there either.

I am not going to comment on the legitimacy of a law that prohibits people from having any kind of media and am just going to leave it as an unfortunate fact of life in the modern world. What I am commenting on is the stupidity of invading people's privacy by browsing their computers without any real likelihood of finding any of the material in question. I understand that most lawmakers are clueless about the reality of computers -- and technology in general -- and pass laws that have little practical effect beyond their PR value. I also understand that the guy who browsed my Mac has a pretty easy job which probably pays pretty well and has good benefits, not to mention the possible entertainment value of stumbling upon some amusing files and the certain smug satisfaction of having the power to invade someone's privacy. So, I can see why such laws are passed and why such practices are carried out: It's good for everybody except the people being searched.

For them, it is arbitrary, capricious, invasive, ineffective and just plain wrong. I hope my first encounter with "The Man" in New Zealand is not indicative of what else I will experience here.


Tom Massey said...

I love this post. Laughed my ass off.

Anonymous said...

Wait so who was the guy and what's the Act... still not exactly clear...