Don't Let Your PC Betray You
Personal computers are extraordinarily useful digital assistants. But, we make them useful by entrusting to them information about ourselves. If this information falls into the wrong hands, the results can range from embarrassing to catastrophic.
As I've written previously, the U.S. Customs Service has the right to confiscate your laptop when you cross a U.S. border, and copy everything on it, without a warrant. More recently, two court decisions upheld the authority of police to seize and copy the contents of home computers without a warrant. And that includes password protected files and directories.
In one case, a 91-year-old man gave police permission to search a personal computer owned by his 51-year-old son, even though he had never used it. Police copied the contents of the computer, including password-protected files, and discovered the presence of child pornography. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the warrantless seizure and duplication of the computer, and the owner now faces a long prison sentence.
In another case, a woman who was suspected of fraud consented to a police search of a computer she shared with her husband, again including password-protected files, which contained child pornography. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals again upheld the search.
These decisions mean that anyone in your household can give permission for authorities to search your PC, copy everything on it, including materials you've obviously tried to protect from being disclosed.
Fortunately, there are several strategies you can use to protect yourself. First, make it clear to everyone in your household that they do not have the authority to give anyone permission to search or seize your computer. Second, restrict access to the computer itself, either by keeping it in a locked room, or locking the computer itself up in a secure container. This creates an "expectation of privacy" that may hold up in court, especially if the search occurred without a warrant.
Third, don't rely on password protection, which can easily be bypassed. Instead, encrypt any confidential files with a program such as PGP (http://www.pgpi.com/ ). Even better, use PGP's "whole disk encryption" feature, which requires anyone who wants to retrieve information on the PC to enter a passphrase to gain access. This won't prevent police, or anyone else, from copying the PC's hard disk. But without the passphrase, the information retrieved will merely consist of undecipherable gibberish.
For more strategies on protecting your computer privacy, click here.