NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Each day, Ted Reeve pours his life into his home computer. He spends hours reading news online and dutifully records monthly payments for his Visa card and Toyota Camry, along with ATM withdrawals at Ralphs grocery store. He regularly types up notes -- from talks with his doctor, and one day wrote up an offer to his landlady to buy his apartment building from her.
It never occurred to him that such personal data could be extracted and shared among strangers. But that's what happened when his computer's hard drive was copied by two investigators retained for his employer, Northwest Airlines (nwac). Working right in his living room with a program called EnCase, they excavated every last bit and byte from his desktop hard drive.
As part of a court-approved search, the man and woman arrived at 11:00 a.m. on Feb. 3, tugging a dolly carrying tool boxes and diagnostic equipment that banged at each step up to the second floor of his duplex. They moved Reeve's PC from its usual place in his bedroom -- near a red, cross-stitched sign that says "Home Sweet Apartment" -- and, with cover unscrewed, spent three hours copying everything on the hard drive.
Northwest suspected that its flight-attendant union had used the Internet to run an illegal call-in-sick campaign to disrupt the airline, the country's fourth largest. So the airline won a court order to search 20 or so hard drives at flight attendants' homes and union offices.
"I didn't know your company could wholeheartedly ransack your computer," said Reeve, who celebrated his 42nd birthday and 10th anniversary as a Northwest flight attendant last week.
'What I did is run a Web site, and got a very large company mad at me.'|Ted Reeve, Northwest flight attendant
The Northwest case shows how hard it is to protect privacy when hard drives become pawns in litigation -- and how hard it is to handle the flood of data that can emerge. As people commit an ever-growing pile of information to computers, their hard drives are becoming a digital mother lode for lawyers. The issue moved into the spotlight when Kenneth Starr's prosecutors scavenged Monica Lewinsky's computers and published what they found, including e-mail messages to friends and unsent drafts of letters.
Now more federal courts are approving searches of home PCs for evidence in civil cases. But it isn't easy drawing limits around a vast digital pool of data, and even safeguards put in place by a federal judge can fall apart as a legal battle speeds up or heats up.
Swamped by the files unearthed from just the first few computers in its search, Northwest complained to one judge that printing each document found inside the workers' PCs would amass a paper pile five times as tall as the Washington Monument, which stands 555 feet.
In the unresolved dispute, both sides have been caught off-guard by the magnitude of the data haul. And so, apparently, were the two presiding judges and Northwest's investigative consultant, Ernst & Young, whose cutting-edge computer-forensics lab is run by the former chief of computer-crime investigations for the U.S. Air Force.
The latest technology makes it easy to extract most deleted files, fragments of Web searches and a host of other data from a PC. Deep in the recesses of the hard drive (the massive repository sometimes heard groaning as a computer starts up) are untold numbers of documents and records of digital actions that many computer owners believe had long since vanished into the ether: forgotten drafts of notes never sent, deleted e-mail, Web pages visited by the owner or anyone who happened to tap the keys.
Almost everything is kept somewhere on the hard drive. Not until there is no nook or cranny left on it do the deleted files typically get overwritten. And many computers never reach that point. The "C" drive of Reeve's four-year-old computer had 4.36 gigabytes of memory, capable of storing more than a dozen sets of the 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica. He believes the drive wasn't full.
'I didn't know your company could wholeheartedly ransack your computer.'|Ted Reeve, Northwest Airlines flight attendant
Reeve and Kevin Griffin, a Honolulu-based flight attendant, accuse Northwest in documents filed with the court of launching a "fishing expedition" that violated their privacy. Trying to wade through an ocean of documents under a fast-track discovery order, their lawyers say in a statement that they were forced to turn over "hundreds or even thousands of pages" that were irrelevant to the order. Northwest said it had no interest in the personal correspondence and files of its workers, but it was entitled to any evidence related to a sick-out conspiracy.
The story of Reeve and his disemboweled desktop began as the past century closed. The final weekend of 1999 was brutal for Northwest schedulers. Between Dec. 30 and Jan. 2, anywhere from 932 to 1,042 flight attendants called in sick every day, nearly double the number of the same weekend in 1998, according to the suit Northwest filed in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Minn., in early January. The airline and its 11,000 flight attendants have been locked in a contract dispute stretching back to 1996. Even by scrambling to shift crews around, and calling on a pool of reserves, Northwest still couldn't get 317 planes in the air.
Northwest was convinced that the sharp increase in absenteeism was an orchestrated protest campaign by the flight attendants' union, the Teamsters Local 2000. For weeks leading up to the weekend, Northwest had been watching anonymous postings on the local's own Web pages and elsewhere. Griffin and Reeve each ran personal Web sites concerned with union matters.
Northwest's suit cited one anonymous message that appeared on Griffin's site Dec. 8. "While not sanctioned by the union," the message said, "a sick-out en masse is one way the company will be convinced that we are serious about an industry-leading contract." Northwest asked the court to grant a restraining order to prevent the union from future disruption of flight operations. Weighing the interests of the flying public, the court complied.
The flight attendants named in the suit denied fomenting any illegal work disruption. "Trust me, I thought about calling in," Reeve said. "I think a lot of people were frustrated and took matters into their own hands."