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How just thinking about terrorism became illegal

What's on your hard drive could mean hard time

"A proposal to scan suspect hard drives causes unease in [Germany]," read a recent frontpage story in the Los Angeles Times. Positioned boldly above the fold, the reporter and editors recognized the potential keen interest in anything having to do with the implementation of snooping in "My Documents".

In the United Kingdom it's no longer surprising to find that in the absence of significant physical evidence, documents, weblinks and cached pages found on suspects' hard disks are enough to send them over on terror charges.

In the conviction of Scottish student Mohammed Atif Siddique, a source recently informs that publicized terror writings on the man's computer existed as links on pages - never mounted on the web - pointing to copies of jihadi materials published on the scholarly site, Project for the Research of Islamist Movements.

The reader can immediately intuit that having a link or links somewhere in your system, no matter where they point, and being Muslim when the police arrive at the door, can be enough to get you in deep trouble.

It was not always exactly like this. During the sweep which netted the alleged ricin cell, one young man was arrested with a copy of the ricin recipe downloaded from the Temple of the Screaming Electron, which is where Google will take you if you punch in "how to make ricin" and then click the "I'm Feeling Lucky" tab. He was subsequently released.

Times have changed. Now, conviction for possession of a terror-enabling script would be more likely.

For the expansion of German law enforcement spying, the scanning for jihadi documents and plans through Trojan horse programs, the Los Angeles paper posited through statements of authorities, that the computer was a precise window on the soul.

Are these your documents, Sir?

"The laptops of one of the suspects in a bungled bombing [from 2006] contained plans, sketches and maps - a virtual road map to an attack that could have killed dozens," stated the newspaper. "What if law enforcement had been able to secretly scan the contents of the computer before the attack was carried out?"

The terrorists bungled their bomb-making. Nothing exploded. They were caught, making the argument a poor one.

However, the fear-monger - one who makes any manner of surveillance sound reasonable - is always waiting with the ultimate trump.

"A terrorist attack with nuclear weapons is certain," reported the Times, citing a statement by German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. "The question is no longer whether an attack could be carried out by terrorists, but when."

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