With a fever of 102 degrees and my nose dripping with a contagion I had acquired in Poland a few days before, I handed the customs officer my official "I'm Carrying No Illegal Drugs" form. "Anything to declare?" he asked indifferently.
"A bottle of Bulgarian Merlot," I snorted while wiping my reddened proboscis on a sweaty denim shirt sleeve. At that, he pointed me toward the darkened, most feared section of the vast customs receiving station, Secondary Inspection.
Over to the X-ray machine I trundled my ailing body, a pair of wheeled suitcases, two laptop computers, a maze of wires and telco equipment and a wide assortment of materials that were to soon be my undoing.
The month prior I had in fact cracked three ribs in an oversized London bathtub, so I had no choice but to ask the next customs man in the "Welcome to America" gauntlet to hoist my 60 kilo luggage for me. They stopped the X-ray conveyer belt and doubled, then tripled and then, yes, quadrupled the ion storm power bombarding my belongings-- all in search of a hidden compartment hiding a golden corkscrew for the Merlot. They peered and twisted their heads to the side, and invited other inspectors to crane their necks and point at the insidiously obvious contraband I was attempting to bring into the United States.
"Tertiary Inspection," they declared, and my luggage was hoisted this time onto a long, slick aluminum tray some three feet wide that was perfectly suited to carry out bovine autopsies.
And there, waiting for me, was a snarling young peach-fuzzed customs inspector with an attitude and a gun. His hands were covered with Playtex Living gloves to protect him from any of the myriad diseases we netizens carry home with us. He had heard about boot sector viruses, obviously.
He asked and I explained what sort of work I do: Internet security, information warfare, espionage stuff. The usual from any of my books. Inspector Gilligan wouldn't give me his name or badge number, but he was chock-full of inane questions one expects from bad 1970s B- movies about spies.
"And the government lets you do that?" he quizzically asked with a Dan Quayle-like ogle-eyed stare of a deer petrified by speeding headlights.
Huh? I thought to myself and my face must have mirrored abject disbelief. "Yeah, I work for the government, too," I offered haltingly. Was this a trick question disguised behind half a bottle of red wine and non-prescription European cold medicine?
"Do you work for the Soviet Union?" he asked in all earnestness while digging through my carry-on case, pulling out stacks of file folders and bellowing "Aha!" upon discovering a book entitled, Economic Espionage in America. "So, do you?" he asked again.
"That would be kind of tough," I answered with my own attitude, "since they went out of business six years ago." I crossed my arms in defiance of Gilligan's job-for-life stupidity.
He poked deeper into my cache and popped out with three declassified Department of Defense reports on security. "And what about these...these...I suppose the government thinks it's okay to carry these around..." he stammered. I merely nodded. (Hey, Inspector, what about that guy over there? Yeah, him. The one with the backpack and the AK-47 sticking out of it.)
He held each file up and dangled it from over his head, peering inside and waiting for kilograms of white powder to come cascading out; after all, I had just come from London, England. Idiot.
He found my light reading materials and questioned my legal right to read them, or even possess them. Weapons of Intelligence and Conflict in the Information Age. I wrote it, yet Gilligan, here, intimated such documents represented a national security threat. Autonomous Mobile Cyber Weapons. He stared hard at that one. Surviving Denial of Service on the Internet. The Ping of Death Page. "And the government really lets you do this?" he droned for the umpteenth time.
He held up a single sheet of paper that had caught his eye and scanned it carefully before handing it to me. "And what's this?" A half a second later I replied as snidely as I could, "A Reuters news release," and tossed it back. (Hey, Inspector, what about that lady--that one who's frothing at the mouth and carrying a chicken under her arm?)
By now, a handful of other customs inspectors had gathered behind Gilligan. While he spirited away a tall pile of other insidious Net-techy documents to a nearby office, one helpful inspector approached. "We tried to tell him to leave you alone, but he's new..."
"And an idiot who thinks he's caught himself the next Aldrich Ames," I added. The guy didn't disagree.
My collection of video tapes didn't go unnoticed, either. The Hacker Attack. The Information Bomb. Hackers Breaking Into the Pentagon. "This stuff is legal?" Gilligan chortled. "And they let you do it?"
"I suppose this is a laser beam," he snorted while feeling around the contours for a button to push.
"Don't touch that!" I yelled and dove backward, cowering for fear that The Watch's gigawatt beam might instantly vaporize me. He jolted and bolted momentarily, but failed to see the humor in the situation. The inspectors behind him giggled mercilessly at his expense. (Hey, Inspector! What about that family over there tugging that Libyan fruit tree? Don't you want to talk with them, too?)
Now that every paper and folder and file and book and dirty sock and underwear of mine was spread along the 20-foot length of the autopsy table, Gilligan ordered, "Give me your passport." He gallumphed over to the office to process my name amongst the distant digital files of known terrorists. "Call the White House," I offered. "They know who I am."
"Don't you know that they're closed today?" Jesus, how stupid could I be? It was Sunday. Of course the government was closed.
The other inspectors merely shook their heads in embarrassment at Gilligan's shenanigans. He still refused to give me his name, but soon came a supervisory inspector who curtly handed me back my passport, said, "Thanks for your cooperation," and ushered Gilligan with a gentle shove on the tush over to the Dunce's Corner for quiet admonishment.
Now, I never did quite figure out what national secrets I was bringing into Tampa, Florida, the United States of America; nor why this particular customs inspector (whose real name I did eventually get) decided to spend an hour harassing me. But I did learn a lot from what the inspector didn't do.
I had two laptop computers loaded with gigs of files of infinitely more interest than my book on aliens or my copy of Internet Underground. Not once did Gilligan show the least interest in the best place to stash information: on a laptop emblazoned with the hacker's motto, "I [heart] Your Computer." No, no interest there.
Nor was there any recognition of a 630MB disk with almost 5,500 security tools and 70+ cryptographic programs, even though it was clearly labeled "Banned From Export Out of the United States." (No longer a crime, by the way. It is legal to carry crypto for your own personal international use.)
While in Poland, I had been given a set of a half dozen more CDs with hacking and cracking programs, security tools, crypto and God knows what else; I haven't had the chance to look yet. But one might expect the astute customs inspector to at least show a cursory interest in a set of CDs and documents written in Polish!
But alas, no--not our Gilligan, no.
So, for the Net-savvy traveller, or even the occasional industrial spy, a few words of advice.
Put all of the good stuff on your hard disk. The hard disk is inside a computer. They don't know that yet.
Label the computer "Contraband."
Note that Cyrillic CD-ROMs are not subject to duty. Détente is in. Bring in several million dollars in CyberCash on a floppy disk. Taxing magnetic bytes is still a few months off.
When you come to the United States, use Tampa Airport; if you're really lucky, you'll get Gilligan to rummage through your stuff.
Be prepared to repack your own dirty clothes. That's not in their job description.
So Emmanuel Goldstein, watch out. Bernie S., you, too. And Phiber and Bloodaxe and SN and the rest of you...be careful. Remember: When you return from Heathrow Airport this summer, Gilligan will be waiting.