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26 Mar, 2009 08:33

A not-so-private PC

The personal computer may soon be not-so-private, with the U.S. and some European nations working on laws allowing them access to search the content held on a person's hard drive.

President Obama's administration is keeping unusually tight-lipped on the details, which is raising concerns among computer users and liberty activists.

Almost everyone today owns a music player and a laptop. But what if the Government decided to allow itself to access these personal devices for no specific reason whatsoever?

In extreme secrecy from the public, the Obama administration is hammering out an international copyright treaty with several other countries and the European Union.

Under the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), governments will get sweeping new powers to search and seize material thought to be in breach of copyright.

While the Obama administration calls these secretive plans a development of “national security,” Richard Stallman, a prominent American software freedom activist, calls it a secret “war on sharing”:

“Because we wouldn’t like it if we knew, they are trying to do policy laundering,” Stillman says. “Democracy gets bypassed and they can do to us whatever they want. I can only guess that it’s going to be nasty, because if it weren’t going to be nasty, they wouldn’t need to keep a secret”.

Up until now, the breach of copyright has been a civil matter. The Obama administration seems to now want to criminalize it.

And even though recent reports suggest that on average more than 800 illegally copied songs can be found on a teenager’s music player, this has hardly ever been seen as a reason for “national security” concerns.

One of the things the treaty is said to be aimed at is peer-to-peer sharing, meaning passing on software from one user to another. But what it would do on a larger scale is let Big Brother watch you, this time on a completely different level.

Leaks of the text suggest that border guards will get unprecedented powers to search travelers without warning.

They will be able to go through, copy and confiscate any digital material people have on their laptop. This means music, movies, and games as well as any other personal material.

Some people compare a personal computer and the files it contains to an underwear drawer, and are convinced that the government should not go through it. Or, at least, it should have a good reason to do so.

Others add that the whole process of drafting the new legislation goes completely against the policies with which Obama ran for office, notably the policy of transparency.

It has also been brought to attention that the countries working on the treaty don’t include important international players like China, Russia and Brazil.