For the past nearly 10 years, I've been patiently waiting for a single event to happen. In November 2003, a ton of my personal belongings walked out the door of my apartment. I was told to forget about them forever. That the government would find a way to keep them, destroy them, or auction them.
I made it my personal goal to get that equipment back. I didn't have a lot of resources to fight that battle, and I still don't. Lawyers cost tons of money, far more than the equipment could ever be worth. But what walked out that day wasn't just a pile of equipment. It was 100% of my personal data I had ever collected, EVER, in the time I had computers. In that collection is floppy disks, hard drives, zip disks, DAT tapes, basically everything I had ever done from the time I first laid hands on a keyboard (or video camera, as they took all my VHS-C and SVHS tapes with raw footage on them too). I never really shot analog, so every photo I had ever taken, from my Polaroid PDC 640 onward, gone. I think I even have webcam shots, and pictures from our school's Sony Mavica in this pile of computers. Tons of scanned photos that were taken by others, from my first flatbed scanner.
Logs from some of the first BBSes I ever connected to. Some of the first programs I ever wrote.
And what they told me on that November day, is that all of this was gone forever. Even the stuff I wrote the week before. Back then we didn't have a cloud like you kids have nowadays. We had a garden hose and a sprinkler, and we got our rainbows that way, and we liked it… But seriously. If you woke up and someone said "all your stuff is stolen. We know where it is, but you'll never see it again. You need to let go and start over…."
Sure, you're thinking – why didn't you back it up? I did. On all the media that went out the door with it. DVD-RW, gone. DAT backups? gone. If it plugged into the wall, or stored a magnetic charge, it was fair game. They took my dreamcast games, for crying out loud.
So for years, I've been bugging the FBI any way I know how to find out where my belongings are, so I can go back and get them. For years, I'd get bounced around. I'd get referred to people who couldn't help. Irritated, I filed a FOIA/PA request, hoping to find any information about the whereabouts of my belongings (among other things). I was dismayed to find no information about the whereabouts of my belongings in the files.
But obviously it triggered something. I filed the request in July of 2012, and the response was (after a month of research time), well… literally stating that my FBI file was larger than the Bible. I got several CDROMs, which had interesting information (including the fact that they unsuccessfully continued to attempt to indict me for other crimes (I also did not commit) until 2009 with a standing grand jury. Yes, they had continued to fight to prosecute me for over 6 years afterward.). But nothing at all about the seizure except some notes they took during the raid.
I got my last CD from them in late December of 2012. In February 2013, I get a very upset call from Becky. "An FBI agent just left me a voicemail, he's looking for *YOU AND ME!* He didn't say why.". Obviously I immediately backed up a copy of everything I had offsite, then grabbed my phone and called the agent back, expecting the worst. … "I have some items we're looking to return to you. I need you to fill out some forms."
I don't have to tell you at this point my jaw just about hit the floor.
He went on to tell me about all these computers they found in a warehouse. Ones that belonged to me, from a case in 2003. I told him where to send the paperwork.
I get the letters a bit later, and my heart sank. They were authorization to return my computers, CONDITIONAL ON MY CONSENT TO WIPE THE DRIVES.
Because what I really want is the kind of computer I could afford in 2003, with no data on it. Yeahhhhhh.
It had a 30 day deadline. I redlined the sections providing consent to wipe the drives, initialed them and signed them, and sent them to the agent.
He calls and explains policy, and procedure. Tells me how lucky I am since "they don't have to return anything, according to my plea bargain"
I start to grin. Here's the turning point in that conversation.
Me: "Actually, according to my plea bargain, there's only one computer you don't have to return. The rest, I'm constitutionally entitled to due process to receive."
Agent: "Plea bargains always contain a forfeiture clause. It states we can dispose of the seized items however we like. We just like to give the opportunity to return them."
Me: "Mine, you'll find, is worded differently. The change is subtle, but important. Can you pull mine up, and read the first sentence of the forfeiture clause to me?"
Agent: "'The defendant forfeits and otherwise waives any ownership right in all items involved in the acts alleged in the Bill of Information or Bill of Indictment.' Now see, I told you…"
Me: "Read Adam's Forfeiture clause. His is the boilerplate one. He had much bigger fish to fry than I did."
Agent: "*murmering to himself as he read it, tried to compare it*. 'I don't see the difference here.'."
Me: "I'll fax over a copy for your review, so you can see the difference. This was specifically negotiated, and I should be able to enforce it in court."
Agent: "I'm just trying to do my job, and close this case out."
Me: "I understand that, but I had a deal with the US government, and they can't try to get out of their obligations under the agreement just because they're inconvenient 10 years later. This is a written and enforceable contract, and this was an inseparable part of the deal. I can't go and un-serve probation, and the government can't change their mind after the fact"
Agent: "If you can fax me the highlighted sections, I'll run this by my boss."
Me: "No problem, I'm hitting send on the fax right now. Talk to you soon!"
My lawyer thought I was crazy for worrying about this, but I demanded a 2 word change in the plea bargain. The prosecutor was anxious to close the deal, and figured it was a very minor change, he assured me it 'only changed the wording, as I'd get back anything not used in the crime anyway'. I knew otherwise.
Suddenly, the change is clear, isn't it? The court only had the right to dispose of one computer – the laptop used to connect to the Lowe's network to check my email.
Small problem for them – They never bothered doing forensics on any of my data.
The FBI agent calls back a few days later, says this is all well and good, but there's over 40 hard drives and do I really expect them to do forensics on the drives to determine what was used in the crime and what wasn't? ABSOLUTELY. I offered to tell them the serial number of the laptop used to connect to the wifi, to let them wipe that, but they stated they couldn't just take my word for it.
Then, I said, they'd better dust off their copies of encase, and get to work. Because "it'd look stupid if you had to tell a judge you didn't want to honor my civil rights because it's really hard, and time consuming, but not important enough to do over the past 10 years we've had the data"
I didn't hear from them for a few months. I figured they were mulling their options.
…3 months later…
A very upset call from Fedex to my cell phone. Apparently I missed a dropoff. And the items were very, very large. And they were not pleased about that.
"Where are the items shipping from?"
"US Department of Justice, Western District of North Carolina…. Sounds like these are important, huh?"
"That's an understatement. My wife was at an appointment, she'll be home all day tomorrow. Can you reattempt delivery then?"
"Sure. Thanks for choosing FedEx!"
I got a call from Becky the next day. Apparently, the packages were too large for the FedEx delivery driver to carry himself. Becky had to help unload and carry them. Inside, were hundreds of pounds of equipment, paperwork, videotapes, CDs, … everything. Untouched.
Over the last month, I've been firing up machines one by one, and finding to my amazement that after a decade in storage, 100% of the data was intact and recoverable. I haven't gotten to the floppy disks yet, but my Kryoflux controller should make short work of that. Then my professional grade editing SVHS deck should make viewing the videotapes a snap.
I leave you with a celebratory posting of the oldest photo I can find of myself – this is from October of 2000, on my last day at Isiah.com before they went out of business. I looked like a dweeb back then.