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4/3/2008
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Terry Sweeney
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A Federal Indictment, That's What

Stop me if you've heard this one: What do you get if you try to board a flight to China while carrying confidential documents, a thumb drive, four external hard drives, 29 recordable CDs, a videotape, and $30,000 in cash?

Stop me if you've heard this one: What do you get if you try to board a flight to China while carrying confidential documents, a thumb drive, four external hard drives, 29 recordable CDs, a videotape, and $30,000 in cash?You can read more about this audacious, if abortive, data transfer here. The trade secrets this Chinese-American was carrying had an estimated worth of $600 million.

And the FBI claims that the search that led to these discoveries and subsequent arrest was "random." But she couldn't have been more obvious if she'd written "Data Thief" across her forehead. Or smuggler, or whatever it was she was actually doing.

Now, I'm the last person to lecture anyone on discretion. But might that kind of walking data center draw attention anywhere, like an airport, much less the international terminal of the world's busiest?

This sounds like a perfect job for FedEx or DHL. No TSA muss, no FBI fuss. But I suppose there was the possibility of interception or third-party scrutiny, or invocation of some untested clause in the Patriot Act that makes it illegal to ship any data volumes larger than the Library of Congress equivalent outside our borders.

E-mailing's out, if you wanted to avoid an electronic trail or potential scrutiny; and putting it in checked luggage wasn't an option. I've collected two little notices from TSA in the last 18 months, alerting me they had searched my checked baggage. No, I wasn't carrying hard drives.

The companies whose trade secrets were involved were not named. Motorola's an obvious possibility with its nearby Schaumburg, Ill., headquarters. But companies in the vicinity of the Windy City are pretty mum about this.

Where this all goes remains to be seen, and as the FBI notes, an indictment is not evidence of guilt -- just a lack of discretion, mixed with some incredibly bad luck or judgment.

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