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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Uncontrollable bits
"Anything to declare, sir?"
With a life-time of international travel under his belt, Peter Cochrane has found that transporting undesirable material across borders has become easier - despite post 9/11 crackdowns...

Just 20 years ago I was roaming the planet with a briefcase full of paper and 35mm slides. The order of the day was pre-packed carousels and VHS tapes all ready for presentation at conferences and customers seminars, that is, if you wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology. Security and content control were not an issue for me, my company or indeed most organisations. But on one occasion I came close to falling foul of the control mechanisms of an individual political regime.

I unwittingly came close to being the victim of a local legal system as I entered a country carrying my slides and videos. I simply walked in unquestioned and unimpeded at the boarder crossing. At the conference I loaded up my materials as usual, gave my presentations and was rewarded by a string of congratulations that culminated in the chilling words: "How did you get those videos into the country so fast?"

My response was: "What do you mean?" The reply: "Didn't you know that there is a strict control of all video material in this country and it has to be viewed and certified suitable for public viewing?" I felt the colour drain from my face, my heart beat rise and my skin go clammy. This was a police state, a place where freedom had yet to arrive. And I had just walked in and never given it a second thought.

I suddenly realised I had broken the local laws, committed a crime and was potentially subject to some heinous punishment. Further enquiry revealed that getting videos into this particular country could take up to six months and I had circumvented the whole process by blindly walking through customs looking very innocent and truthfully stating that I had nothing to declare.

What to do? On the spot I decided I would donate all my videos to the conference organisers. There was no way I was going to attempt to exit the country carrying them, especially as I would find it extremely difficult not to look guilty as I did so. A few days later I departed with a half empty briefcase. I had my carousels of 35mm slides but no videos.

That time now seems long gone and I can recall the incident with mild amusement. But I was lucky. In subsequent years I saw people who were no so fortunate and it highlights to me that ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law, even when you are travelling to a country whose customs and laws you are not acquainted with.

For the rest of that 35mm, OHP and VHS carrying era I was sure to check on the local laws and conditions of every country I visited. In the West we have become so accustomed to freedom that we take it for granted. You cannot make the same assumptions in some parts of the world.

Today we have migrated from hardware to software. All my presentation material (which includes slide sets, photographs, drawings, writing documents, movies, animations and much more) is now stored on my laptop. As a result I can travel freely from one country to another and at no time does anyone ask: What are you carrying? What material do you have? Have you got any movies? The controls are still there for VHS, CD and DVD, but not laptops.

Since 9/11 and the subsequent tightening of security across the planet, I have had cause to reflect on the state of play of data transportation and the lack of security. Almost everything we now buy has processing power and embedded memory. For example, my digital camera contains a 350MB hard drive onto which I can load any form of data. Using modest encryption software I could scramble, change format, embed and hide any kind of file on my camera, mobile phone, PDA and even my key ring. Walking into a country unchecked and unimpeded is getting easier.

Along with the vast majority of humanity I do not have an evil disposition, want to cause mayhem, break the law or do anything wrong. I do not carry contraband files, communicate or transport information that would be of advantage to any dubious organisation or, especially, the criminal and terrorist fraternity. What I do carry is commercial information - concepts, ideas, memos I hope will result in progress.

What has become clear is just how easy it is to turn advantageous technology around to some pernicious cause. I see no solution to the policing of data transportation across country boarders or continents. Each of us can now carry huge libraries of data on our hard drives and DVDs, encrypted and/or disguised to look innocent or otherwise. Faster screening of such databases (at this time) would appear impossible and futile in a world that is becoming totally connected.

Without some uniformity of laws and customs across the planet I see the number of innocent and intended transgressions accelerating with bit flow, increasing our individual risk.

This column was dictated onto an Olympus recorder, typed on an Apple iBook by my secretary, emailed to me via a cable modem connection, edited on the London to Slough train and emailed to via a company Ethernet LAN connection.