Network: Pitfalls that lurk for unsuspecting Customs men

What HM Customs really wants to do is scan Cukier's hard drive for porn...
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"LURKING", IN Net parlance, is the name given to the act of passively auditing services such as Usenet news groups, chat rooms and e-mail lists.

Lurking is one way in which media types glean hot news tips. In fact, lurking is a near-ideal way for reporters on the hi-tech beat to get story leads. Lots of things emerge on lists and news groups, despite the penalty of wading through much that is not particularly newsworthy.

Thus it was with great amusement that I read recently the plight of one hapless member of the press who was dragged off by HM Customs after alighting from a Eurostar train. You may have read the tale, first offered in The Independent on 17 August ( net/980817ne/story1.html), before becoming a global item. Two badge-flashing gumshoes snatched Kenneth Cukier, a technology commentator, and led him off behind a wall, where they proceeded to shake him down for "illegal drugs, fire arms, bomb-making materials, lewd and obscene pornographic material..."

Cukier, it should be noted, is more likely to be seen lecturing at prestigious universities, or in the chambers of international commissions pondering weighty technological standards, than up against the wall in Waterloo Station.

It quickly materialises that what HM Customs really wants to do is scan Cukier's hard drive for porn, presumably because computers make relatively poor places to hide drugs, guns and bombs. We lurkers, in turn, can share the absurdity of the moment, deliciously written by Cukier, without having to put up with the ignominy of being dragged from a train platform.

To be sure, lurkers also don't have to deal with what must no doubt be the difficult mission of HM Customs officials. They somehow have to pick potential miscreants out of throngs of legitimate travellers, a task that must make for many awkward situations similar to the one recounted by Cukier. And, of course, we forget that these same agents do nail crazed bombers and other less-than-perfect citizens.

But lurkers need have little pride, so it's no problem to be hugely amused by the outrageous implausibility of this particular situation. With probably millions of ways for porn to travel into the UK - over the Internet; by dial-up connection; over private networks; via satellite link, transatlantic cable, clandestine short-wave data broadcast and even newsstand and videotape - HM Customs is stopping people with computers alighting from Continental trains.

You can't help wondering what leap of progress it was when they started checking trains instead of chariots, or pedestrians returning from pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Can you imagine a memo directing agents to cease looking for porn etched upon stone tablets, in favour of lap-top computers, complete with instructions on how to tell the difference? Will the next technological leap involve dunning people who arrive with lap-tops on - wonder of wonders - aeroplanes?

But back to our e-mail protagonist. Says he, no, there are no guns, bombs or porn on this computer. So, say Her Majesty's agents, you won't mind if we scan your hard drive? Visions of a leering cop, a hot spotlight and the other accoutrements of a B detective movie. The agent even asks, "Do you have Internet on this thing?" as if the Internet would fit on a hard drive. This is priceless, as lurking goes.

The story gets even better: leering agent pulls the bag apart only to discover that the traveller's computer is, horrors, an Apple. Her Majesty's finest technologists, it seems, have not cracked the problem of scanning a Macintosh.

Techie lurkers are doubled up in fits of laughter, at this juncture. There are, no doubt, more than a few British 14-year-olds who have scanned hard drives belonging to such fortified and, theoretically, technologically inaccessible bastions as the military, the nuclear power industry, England's mightiest banks and, I would guess, HM Customs' computers themselves, to name a few (I presume that HM Customs has computers).

Pimply kids have earned notoriety by cracking secure systems running UNIX, Windows NT and mainframes running arcane, unknown, ancient operating systems with shadowy names such as Guardian. But HM's troops can't scan a hard drive on a computer so easy to use that it's the choice of many primary schools.

My five-year-old godson has mastered the Mac. Suddenly, my image of British technology, replete with James Bond and the phlegmatic Q's whizzy gizmos, is getting a sharp reality check. I hate it when that happens.

Unless, of course, it's funny. Our hero can't believe it: he's tempted to lash into these obvious techno-wimps, but a pressing meeting calls. He packs up, with only a few slighting remarks aimed at the now wilting agents who advise him, gruffly, to move along.

With a zillion unguarded electronic portals, HM Customs is camping out at the train station, shaking down suspect-looking foreigners, who turn out to be university lecturers. The only more amusing story would be Customs' apprehension of some gang who really do choose the train to move slowly, and at great risk, bits that could have quickly and surreptitiously moved in many other ways.

It's a little like hiring guards and charging them to stop any bikini- clad Swedes from smuggling copies of Playboy in to the choir while they sit at Evensong, only to learn that Danes and Finns easily pass through, owing to the guards' inability to detect scantily clad persons of other nationalities.

Even a lurker might be able to help in that situation, or, at least, to die laughing.