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U.S. Confiscating Data at the Border 630

PizzaFace writes "U.S. Customs agents have long had broad authority to examine the things a person tries to bring into the country, to prevent the importation of contraband. The agents can conduct their searches without a warrant or probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. In recent years, Customs agents have begun using their authority to insist on copying data brought to the border on laptop computers, cell phones and other devices. The government claims that this intelligence-gathering by Customs is the same as looking in a suitcase. In response the EFF is filing a lawsuit attempting to force the government to reveal its policies on border searches. 'The question of whether border agents have a right to search electronic devices at all without suspicion of a crime is already under review in the federal courts. The lawsuit was inspired by some two dozen cases, 15 of which involved searches of cellphones, laptops, MP3 players and other electronics.'"
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U.S. Confiscating Data at the Border

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  • Seriously.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by log0n ( 18224 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:05AM (#22333514)
    Police state anyone? Things are getting worse and worse.
    • by presarioD ( 771260 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:50AM (#22334284)
      carry on citizen! Nothing to see here, the elections(R)[patent pending trademark of Diebold co.] are coming up so you can choose a candidate(TM)[owned by classified (for national security reasons) interests] by pressing an appropriate button at the Diebold Electronic Voting Machine(TM)and provided you've chosen wisely [Diebold co. safeguards your democracy and freedom(TM) for you] there will be the necessary voicing of your concerns about this issue. Once it gets properly acknowledged (>/dev/null) you will be notified. In the meanwhile, abstain from alcohol, pray to Jesus, don't touch children/gay/lesbian people, and don't be a teRRist hating america and our freedom and democracy(TM). We appreciate your business and looking forward to serving you again! Have a nice day!

      The above response is an automated response generated by our Complains Department Internet Crawling Machine. You have received this reply because your post scored +5 in the Homeland Security Dissatisfaction Scale(TM). Federal regulations require us to notify you that positive Homeland Security Dissatisfaction Scale(TM) Scores are automatically recorded along with your Unique ID (under Save America From Teh Internets Act anonymity on the internet has been eliminated for your...(stifling a laugh) protection). You might/will receive a notification and/or visit by DHS officers for an interview in order to clarify if you pose a threat to our way of life(TM) and to the safety of our society (silent "sieg heil" salutation in the background).
    • by HangingChad ( 677530 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @12:30PM (#22334914) Homepage

      How is that flamebait? This isn't just searching for contraband, this is looking back through web history files, email and sensitive "thought data" without bothering with either probable cause or a warrant. Any reasonable person has a right to resent this type of intrusion, not to mention confiscating expensive equipment without due process.

      More frightening than the act itself is the attitude of creeping intrusiveness justified by people who went through the American educational system. I don't think anyone in the history of the world imagined themselves being part of an emerging police state. In almost every instance it was a gradual process where the principles were acting on some type of perceived imperative. The people involved believed they were justified. The GRU, the Stasi, the SS and a thousand organizations like them started with a social imperative.

      Don't think we'll ever be that bad? If there are no checks and balances, no oversight and no way to challenge over-reaching policy what's stopping us from getting there? There has to be a line even for terrorism. This far and no farther. Instead we keep kicking that can farther down the road.

      It's not the actual policy. It's not this little thing or that little thing, it's the attitude that the ends justify the means underlying each little step.

  • by illumin8 ( 148082 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:12AM (#22333604) Journal
    I just have a question for any legal scholars or experts in this field:

    Does the 5th ammendment apply if I have strong encryption on my laptop? Can I simply refuse to give them the passphrase, or will I end up in Gitmo?
    • by TheMeuge ( 645043 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:14AM (#22333632)
      As far as I understand, they cannot arrest you, because you haven't committed a crime, but they can refuse you entry into the country.

      But IANAL.
      • What about? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by interactive_civilian ( 205158 ) <> on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:28AM (#22333904) Homepage Journal
        TheMeuge said:

        As far as I understand, they cannot arrest you, because you haven't committed a crime, but they can refuse you entry into the country.
        Just out of curiosity, can they refuse you entry if you are US citizen? Considering it is your home country, there isn't exactly another home country to send you back to, is there?

        If they CAN refuse you entry, what happens if the country they send you back to denies you re-entry? Do you just spend the rest of your life hopping back and forth on planes until someone gives in?

        I honestly, don't see how they could deny entry to a US citizen, for any reason. Can someone please clarify?

        • Re:What about? (Score:5, Informative)

          by Barryke ( 772876 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:52AM (#22334318) Homepage
          Try this []
          "A Minnesota appeals court has ruled that the presence of encryption software on a computer may be viewed as evidence of criminal intent."

          When i am crossing the USA border with encryption that is not crackable with ease - like keys over 1kb long - the enforcers (beleive to) have enough reason to put me in jail, either to annoy, prosecute or study me. And besides that: rumor has it that even when one uses or develops heavy encryption outside North-America soil, they might want to jail that person when it visits the states later on.
          • Re:What about? (Score:4, Informative)

            by DM9290 ( 797337 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @08:14PM (#22342810) Journal

            Try this []
            "A Minnesota appeals court has ruled that the presence of encryption software on a computer may be viewed as evidence of criminal intent."

            When i am crossing the USA border with encryption that is not crackable with ease - like keys over 1kb long - the enforcers (beleive to) have enough reason to put me in jail, either to annoy, prosecute or study me. And besides that: rumor has it that even when one uses or develops heavy encryption outside North-America soil, they might want to jail that person when it visits the states later on.
            The article is misrepresents the ruling. The Minnesota appeals court found that what a person was using their computer for, encryption or otherwise was RELEVENT to the facts of the case.

            Not all admissible evidence is "evidence of criminal intent".

            In fact I would argue the availability of encryption software and the NON-USAGE of it, is evidence of innocence (or at least proof that the accused is no hardened criminal and deserves some leniency)!

            They never said that the encryption is necessarily evidence of wrong doing. Only that it is admissible as evidence. It would be for the jury to decide whether or not it proves anything; guilt innocence or otherwise.

            ""We find that evidence of appellant's Internet use and the existence of an encryption program on his computer was at least somewhat relevant to the state's case against him,""

            He was convicted for the actual testimony from the girl. There was no evidence he has even encrypted anything at all. The defense was attempting to have the conviction thrown out on the basis that somehow this evidence was irrelevant and tainted the verdict. The evidence was slightly relevant (barely), and it was not prejudicial anyway, so the trial was fair.

            Even if the appeals court found the evidence completely irrelevant it wouldn't have reversed the ruling, since in light of the fact that nothing had actually been encrypted it is absurd to think that the jury somehow had a reasonable doubt about the girls testimony but the existence of unused PGP software erased that doubt.

            No way did a judge say "evidence of encryption software = evidence of criminal intent".

            the only way to exclude evidence is to prove it is absolutely irrelevant or that it is so misleading that it would threaten the validity of the verdict. (or that it was obtained by government misconduct).

            at the end of the day most good prosecutors who have a good case aren't going to harp on little minutia of barely material information. They are going to confuse the jury into thinking that somehow this detritus is supposed to prove something, and if you get some jury members fixated on the idea that encryption software that hasn't been used is supposed to prove something they might just acquit because they lost the crowns line of reasoning.

            for whatever insight it gives into the mental state of the user of a computer it is tangentally relevant and would be admissible unless it was misleading or too confusing. evidence of general behavior around an object relevent to the crime (the computer) is somewhat relevant.

            the existence of microsoft word would have been deemed admissible. it also proves no crime per se. But some newspaper might say "microsoft word is evidence of criminal intent!"

    • and they will keep the device in question.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by oni ( 41625 )
        This is *exactly* why truecrypt [] has hidden volumes. And there is no way - I mean, mathematically no way - to tell if a hidden volume is actually there. So you give them the password to the parent volume, which (if you're smart) you've filled with innocent-looking data.
  • by jamar0303 ( 896820 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:13AM (#22333626)
    Seriously, this is going overboard. If this starts happening on a large scale, I'm buying a bunch of microSD cards and storing everything important on those instead (easier to hide).

    I think more than a few corporations will object to this, though, if only because sensitive data really shouldn't find its way into the hands of these people... who knows what might leak?
  • pretty sad (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nguy ( 1207026 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:15AM (#22333646)
    It's pretty sad when Americans need to travel with blank laptops for fear of having their data seized by US border agents; in the past, that sort of thing was necessary when traveling behind the iron curtain.

    It's also pointless, given that data can be stored easily and encrypted on the Internet, on flash drives (some of which are tiny), or even hidden steganographically.
    • Re:pretty sad (Score:5, Insightful)

      by gEvil (beta) ( 945888 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:39AM (#22334082)
      It's pretty sad when Americans need to travel with blank laptops for fear of having their data seized by US border agents...

      Which also brings up the following line of questioning by border guards: "Why are you traveling with a blank laptop? You wouldn't keep a blank laptop around unless you had something to hide."
  • Copyright (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:15AM (#22333652)
    Backup a few of your CDs onto your laptop, and when Customs copies the data, tip off the RIAA. Let them fight with each other.
  • by the_skywise ( 189793 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:15AM (#22333668)
    Obviously they're just trying to steal MP3s!
  • by Dog-Cow ( 21281 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:16AM (#22333674)
    But it was confiscated.
  • before 1984... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by owlnation ( 858981 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:18AM (#22333704)
    Presumably the prequel to 1984 would have shown Big Brother to be a charismatic politician preaching what a democratic majority wanted to hear. The need for security only reasonably matched the need to protect against Oceania's enemies... He was respected, and his election was a free choice. He then began to change little things slowly.


    A prior honest President genuinely though the security measures were necessary. Then a corrupt Big Brother saw that the mechanisms created could be exploited and was attracted to power. He then said all the right things and got himself elected. The tools to control were already in place.

    Well, today in the US, and especially the UK, those mechanisms are already firmly in place. Even if your current government is not evil, there's nothing stopping the next one so being. With the new powers one can wield what evil person wouldn't want to gain control? One eventually will come to power. It is inevitable.

    It's probably already too late.
  • by Iowan41 ( 1139959 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:18AM (#22333706)
    is also unconstitutional. But these days we are encouraged to snigger, and call 'nuts' the one candidate out of the pack who says that the federal government should be made to obey the Constitution.
    • Curious... (Score:3, Informative)

      by C10H14N2 ( 640033 )

      Customs inspections began during the administration of GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1789 to be exact. It was the FIFTH act of Congress. You might think they all had a pretty accurate inkling of the intentions of the framers at that juncture.
  • by TheOnlyJuztyn ( 813918 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:19AM (#22333718)

    "The government claims that this intelligence-gathering by Customs is the same as looking in a suitcase."
    I'm pretty sure copying data off of your laptop or blackberry would be more like looking in your suitcase and then confiscating everything in it. Which probably wouldn't fly with many folks.
  • wtf (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Arancaytar ( 966377 ) <> on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:22AM (#22333782) Homepage
    Aside from the privacy and civil rights concerns, this is seriously unacceptable to just about any company with trade secrets. What is the point of the most paranoid security policies on company notebooks for internationally traveling employees, if they can't cross the border without their sensitive data getting searched?

    Industrial espionage, including by the US, is a very real concern.
  • by edwardpickman ( 965122 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:27AM (#22333874)
    I don't give my business partner access to all my files so now the border agents are demanding access to them. There's sensitive company information in the files. What's to stop some one from hacking their system and gaining access to my company's information? I keep certain machines off the internet to avoid any possibility of hacking, do they do the same? Let's say a border agent copies legally bought music from my MP3 player then posts it on the web, am I responsible since it was my responsibility to keep those files secure and off the net? There's a massive potential for abuse over and above the looking for embarassing photos on some one's hard drive. We aren't talking FBI or CIA here. Most agents are underpaid and poorly trained. There's still a lot of confusion about what's allowed on planes and there is a lot of abuse in body searches. If the agents are already getting their jollies from patting down well known actors then what are the odds they'll be digging through personal files looking for dirt?
  • by Ardipithecus ( 985280 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:28AM (#22333894) []

    "Eventually, he agreed to log on and stood by as the officer copied the Web sites he had visited, said the engineer, a U.S. citizen who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of calling attention to himself."

    Then explain why you were checking all the Iranian sites. "Oh, the cable, of course. Please step over here sir."

  • How Long Before... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Nom du Keyboard ( 633989 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:31AM (#22333956)
    How long before Microsoft and the BSA manage to get checks for "illegal bootleg" software included in the searches.

    And then the RIAA and MPAA will demand that "illegal content" be stopped.

    Every special interest group that can tie their interests to computer data will want in after that.

  • Cell Phone Search (Score:5, Informative)

    by jaredcat ( 223478 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:34AM (#22333984)
    I've been subjected to this myself.

    I live in San Diego, about 10 miles from the Mexico boarder. A lot of San Diegans, including myself, go down there all the time for clubs and cheap shopping. On the way back to the US, I've got about a 5% chance of being stopped and taken to Secondary Inspection-- I've been in Secondary 5 times in the past 5 years. The first agent who you speak to when going through the normal process can flag you to be in Secondary if he thinks something is suspicious or out of order.

    Usually Secondary just involves a more detailed search of my car and 30 minutes of sitting in a waiting room with a bunch of Mexicans. One time in Secondary was quite different. In this case, the first guy asked me where I went in Mexico on this trip. I couldn't pronounce the name (Via Bueneventeura in Chapultapec, Tijuana), and I guess he thought I was making it up or telling him a story. He put a note on my windshield and directed me towards Secondary.

    For some reason this particular Customs agent in Secondary didn't believe that I am who I said I am. He kept asking me why I would go to a foreign country without my passport (at the time, you only needed to bring a driver's license and that is all I ever brought with me). After asking me questions for over an hour (literally, what hospital was I born in? where did I go to elementary school? etc...) and looking me up in various databases, the guy starts going through my stuff.

    The customs agent wanted to search my smartphone (Sony Ericsson P910i at the time), but he didn't know how to use it. I asked him what he thought he could possibly find in there that could be contraband. At any rate, he didn't know how to search my phone, and I wasn't going to help him. There was a big toothmark in my phone from where my dog chewed on it, and I told him that because of the damage to the touch screen, I couldn't actually go through the files on the phone anymore. He wasn't too happy with that answer, but he accepted it anyway.

    Another hour later I started complaining to one of the supervisors on the floor-- I had been sitting in this smelly waiting room for 2+ hours with no access to a bathroom, and there was no apparent reason to keep holding me. By now the agent must have confirmed in at least 12 different databases that I am a US citizen, born and raised. I'm also just about the whitest nerdy white guy with a Boston accent that you could ever hope to meet; not exactly the archetype of a foreign agent or drug smuggler. The supervisor finally gave me leave to go.

    Of course my car had been turned upside down-- glove compartment and everything else turned out. Rather than complain again, I just wanted to get out of there.

    Since then I always bring a passport, and I definitely don't go across the boarder as often as I used to since that experience.

  • Encrypt (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DeanFox ( 729620 ) * <> on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:38AM (#22334052)

    Good timing with the Truecrypt 5.0 release. This is search/seizure without cause and is against basic rights but this shouldn't be too big a deal. It isn't for me.

    I travel with everything inside a Truecrypt hidden volume. My OS is exposed in the regular volume along with browser cache showing activity to That's it. The rest of the system is contained within a hidden volume.

    I've been asked to turn my PC on and type in my "password" and I do so cheerfully. They see exactly what I allow them to see: The OS with browser cache to They seem satisfied and I get waved on.

    I can play this game and I win. I'm not waiting for the courts to tell me what is/isn't right/wrong. I already know what's right/wrong. It's irrelevant (to me) how this all plays out in the courts. No thief, public or private gets my data.

    • by Lord Grey ( 463613 ) * on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:45PM (#22336228)

      I can play this game and I win.

      This "game" should not even be played in the United States of America. The fact that you feel the need to hide that which need not be hidden is a true metric of just how far the U.S. has gone down the wrong road.

      If the U.S. government was a spouse, the entire world would be telling us to get a divorce on the grounds of an abusive relationship.

  • WTF? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bert64 ( 520050 ) <bert@slashdot. f i r e n z e> on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:43AM (#22334136) Homepage
    Looking for data being smuggled over the border? What a ridiculous idea...
    Who would go to the trouble of transporting data on physical media, when it can be transmitted over the internet?
    • Because, (Score:3, Interesting)

      by thepotoo ( 829391 )
      In ten years, you won't be able to send data over the internet unmonitored. The basis for this new law will be that "you can't physically take data across the border without it being searched."

      Damn, I really, really, hope that's just my tinfoil hat talking.

  • Random data? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by davidwr ( 791652 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:46AM (#22334212) Homepage Journal
    Next time I cross the border, remind me to carry a suitcase full of DVDs full of random data labeled "one-time pad disk 1," "one time pad disk 2," etc.

    Let them waste their time copying those disks.

    When they ask what they are, I'll tell them the truth: They are unused one-time pads that are designed to be used to encrypt corporate data. If they ask, I will also tell them truthfully that if they leave my sight they will not be used.

    Oh, I'll also include a disk that has nothing but a copy of the Bill of Rights on it, just to see if they are paying attention.
  • by werelord ( 562191 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:47AM (#22334230)
    If I remember correctly, Kevin Mitnick was imprisoned for 5 years, 4.5 of them pre-trial; 8 months of solitary confinement, for copying files "worth" 160k (actual value much less)..

    And now its "same as looking in a suitcase"??

    obviously "who" does it makes a difference.. The government has your best interests at heart, honestly!!
  • by Loibisch ( 964797 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:53AM (#22334326)
    They're not confiscating your data, they're just trying to help by creating an off-site backup for you. So if your harddrive goes kaboom you can go to the customs office, ask them nicely and they will hand over a copy of the data you had with you at your arrival.

    Aren't they a nice bunch?
  • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:57AM (#22334390)
    Flash drive mule.
  • by jjh37997 ( 456473 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @11:57AM (#22334394) Homepage
    Want to fight back? Buy a cheap laptop off eBay and fill it with the most dangerous viruses and trojans you can find. If you don't know how to do that just visit a lot of Russian porn sites without patches or a firewall.
  • by ThatDamnMurphyGuy ( 109869 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @12:06PM (#22334528) Homepage
    Keep your pr0n, browser (firefox -profile), vlc, in a hidden TrueCrypt volume. Let them search like idiots. Give them the password to the bogus volume when they force you into it.

    Hell, TrueCrypt 5.0 is out, and it even runs on OSX now.
  • by sakdoctor ( 1087155 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @12:06PM (#22334532) Homepage
  • National security (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MrNougat ( 927651 ) <.ckratsch. .at.> on Thursday February 07, 2008 @12:19PM (#22334734)
    Well, you know, they're just trying to keep us good citizens safe from outsiders bringing terrorist acts to our nation. Our borders must be secure.

    Of course, there might be one or two that slip through, or people already inside the borders who begin terrorist activities. We should probably do this same kind of thing at state borders, too.

    And the big cities. I mean, New York has already been attacked. Chicago has the tallest building in the nation. And there are plenty of huge metropolitan areas that could be ripe targets. We should make sure that our big cities are safe.

    Speaking of buildings, we should probably also conduct these searches whenever someone is entering a large building. That would certainly relieve the fears of the people who have to work in (or near!) high-rises every day.

    But you don't have to enter a building to do something bad. Just being out on the street, you could have some kind of chemical or biological weapon, or a dirty bomb. (Remember Jose Padilla? We're lucky we caught him.) The police should be able to search public spaces, including the people in them, at their will. Really, you're in a public place, you should expect to be inspected.

    Okay, we've got all that covered, but that's all defensive. If we really want to rid this world of the threat of terrorism, we need to go to the source. Let's see ... terrorists are people ... people need food, clothing, shelter ... I've got it! Since terrorists must live somewhere, we should be able to search anywhere that people live. Don't we have the right to know for sure that our neighbors aren't planning to drive a truck full of explosives into a crowded shopping mall? (Oh, yeah, I forgot shopping malls, them too.)

    That's going to take a lot of resources. A lot of people. We'd have to really get the citizenry on board here ... really drive the message home that every citizen is a security officer ... get people pay attention to every little detail, and report things they think might be suspicious.

    Not everyone can keep that up, though. I mean, we're people! We have jobs and families! We shouldn't have to bear the burden of constant vigilance; if everyone has to give up their regular lives in order to become a police officer, the terrorists have won!

    We live in an age of technology! We can develop a giant database, and fill that database with information collected by audio and video recording equipment. We can install that surveillance equipment in all those places above I've demonstrated that terrorists can be found, have them all feed into the database.

    National borders, state lines, cities, public buildings, city streets, shopping malls, private homes.

    In all seriousness: I would much rather live in fear of terrorism than in fear of my own government's attempts to prevent it.
  • by MadJo ( 674225 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @12:19PM (#22334742) Homepage Journal
    Is the US government actually saying that copying files from one device to another is the same as looking through suitcases?
    Then, in that aspect the whole argument of the RIAA that 'copying cds is illegal' is debunked by the US government.
    You could easily say the following: 'Copying CDs is the same as looking at them in a store' and get away with it.
  • Cellphone contacts ? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Yvanhoe ( 564877 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @12:32PM (#22334954) Journal
    Can they copy cellphone contacts ? That is a private, and sometimes valuable, information !

    Also, can they copy data I have the copyright on ?

    I am a programmer, I sometimes carry source code with me, supposing I didn't encrypt them, could they copy it ? Knowing that my job contract makes me responsible in case I provide valuable company IP to someone without authorization, am I liable for this ?

    If there is an old copy of the anarchist cookbook on my hard drive (hey, I've been young and silly once upon a time!), can I be charged with terrorism ?
  • by Mister Whirly ( 964219 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @12:57PM (#22335406) Homepage
    So if the US Customs agents make copies of all my MP3s, isn't that "stealing" the music, as defined by the RIAA? Are they going to end up paying $7,000 per song they have copied when they are brought to court??
  • by Skapare ( 16644 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:09PM (#22335588) Homepage

    ... to image copy one hard drive in a year?

    Sheesh! These guys must be totally incompetent idiots if they can't make a copy of a hard drive within a day, and return the laptop. If they think the owner might use that data to commit a future crime, then keep the hard drive and return the rest of the laptop. If they think the owner might commit a crime even without the data, then arrest the owner. Just keeping laptops makes no sense.

  • by mlwmohawk ( 801821 ) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @01:33PM (#22336018)
    Encrypt everything. Send it back and forth to your home across the internet already encrypted. When the border guards ask you for your papers, present the Nazi pigs a nice clean system.

    Face it guys, we have to study how the french did it in WWII and update it for the 21st century. The Nazi party didn't die, it took hold in the U.S.A. and has been slowly asserting itself.

    We have to present evidence anonymously because even though we may have freedom of speech, we have to watch out for trade secrets, copyright infringement, and the lawyers. Blow the whistle and lose your home and livelihood, no jail time, nope, just homelessness and poverty. So, they can destroy you without even making you a martyr.

"I shall expect a chemical cure for psychopathic behavior by 10 A.M. tomorrow, or I'll have your guts for spaghetti." -- a comic panel by Cotham