Why audiophiles are dying out

The legal fight over the government’s access to your outboard brain

There’s a fascinating piece in today’s New York Times about a new legal fight: Should border guards be able to search through the contents of your laptop when you’re entering the US? Apparently this question is being decided, as we speak, by several federal courts. The administration argues that yes, it should be allowed to look through your hard drive, partly for practical reasons — for example, they’ve discovered people with child pornography crossing the border — and for legal reasons: A search through a hard drive is no different than searching through one’s paper records in a briefcase. Most federal courts have agreed with this reasoning.

But one judge — Dean D. Pregerson of Federal District Court in Los Angeles — recently disagreed, and barred the results of an airport laptop search. Why? Because, as the story notes:

“Electronic storage devices function as an extension of our own memory,” Judge Pregerson wrote, in explaining why the government should not be allowed to inspect them without cause. “They are capable of storing our thoughts, ranging from the most whimsical to the most profound.”

This is incredibly fascinating stuff. It’s also going to become more and more crucial, because — as I’ve noted in a recent Wired column, and my profile last year of Gordon Bell, the guy who’s outsourcing all his memory to a terabyte hard drive — we’re offloading more and more of our grey matter to our silicon matter. Pregerson is precisely right. In an era where the line between our artificial memory and our real one is becoming increasingly blurry, searching through a hard drive is going to be more and more like reading your mind.

Here’s an easy prediction: Anyone who’s worried about memory-privacy at the border will start storing most of their silicon thoughts online, where border guards won’t have access to it. Of course, leaving all your stuff on Google Drive has its own problems; it’s another easy place for the government to subpoena. So there’ll be other solutions, probably, including steganographic memory storage — hiding documents inside other documents — and new forms of crypto. Either way, interesting times ahead, eh?

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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