Taking your PC in for repair. Gary Glitter etc. jpoc opinion

Although it all happened a long time ago, the case of the singer Gary Glitter is still mentioned regularly. I am concerned about one aspect of this case which nobody ever seems to mention.

Just to recap, a couple of years ago, Gary Glitter took his PC back to a branch of PC World in the UK for repair. While it was there, a technician noticed that there were some images on the hard disk that appeared to contain obscene material and the police were contacted. Gary Glitter was successfully prosecuted for possessing sexual images of children and he was sent to prison. The techie at PC world was praised for being such a good public spirited citizen and everyone was happy. I'm not setting out to defend Gary Glitter. Child pornography is wrong and we should not permit it but all is not so simple in this case.

What is wrong with then? Well, how about answering two questions. First of all, why was the techie examining individual files on the PC? Secondly, what would he have done had he found some other material that was not illegal but potentially embarrassing?

There was no technical reason for looking at data files on the PC. I can think of no reason for this other than just being curious about what a famous person has on their computer. Suppose that you had invited a tradesman in to your house to fix the central heating system. How would you feel if you found him rummaging through the contents of your private correspondence? Is the case of data files on the hard disk of a computer that is brought in for repair any different? I don't think so.

What about other material? What if the person working for PC World had found some private letters that revealed, for example, that a celebrity had been conducting a gay love affair with a politician? Would that information have been quietly forgotten or would it have been sold to the Sunday papers, loaded on the internet, spread around via pub gossip or even used for blackmail?

Perhaps you think that you are not a celebrity and it would not happen to you. Well, there was another case shortly after the Gary Glitter affair was publicised. This latter case attracted little or no news coverage outside the specialised area of newsletters that cover privacy issues.

This was a tragic case and it will serve no purpose to name names but the situation involved another PC taken for repair to a branch of PC world. Again, the repairer went fishing through the hard disk and found some images that he found personally offensive. He informed the police and they confiscated the computer and went round to the man's house and arrested him on suspicion of the possession of child pornography.

The police made no attempt to be discrete and rapidly, the man's family and neighbours and then anyone who read the local papers new that this man had been arrested for downloading child porn from the internet. Finally, the police got around to investigating the actual contents of the computer and they released the man, dropped all charges and gave him his computer back. The truth was that the only offence was probably breach of copyright against Playboy or some similar magazine. Yes, the images on the man's computer were scanned from the sort of magazine that is openly on sale in newsagents across the whole country. Sadly the story was out and he was now known as the man who had got away with a nasty crime rather than one who had been wrongly accused. He killed himself.

OK you say, this does not just affect celebrities but you don't have any, even slightly smutty, images on your PC so you are not worried. But, do you have any private correspondence there? A letter to your solicitor about a planning application that you are considering? If you decide not to go ahead, perhaps you do not want your neighbours to know that you were ever even thinking of it. What about the bank and financial details in your copy of quicken or MS Money? Or your credit card details lodged in a cookie or a file in the web cache on your hard disk.

The lesson is clear. If you ever have to take your computer in to PC World (or, I dare say anywhere else) for repair, you should assume that the entire contents of the hard disk will be scanned by somebody who will be prepared to use any information thereon against you.

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