Dell Protects the Homeland

Stupidity is rampant:

I purchased a Dell server today for work, through our account representative at Dell. At the end of the order process, just before confirmation, the Dell representative said: “Federal law requires that we ask what will this server be used for?”

I asked, incredulously, “Why the hell does the federal government care?” to which the Dell representative replied “PATRIOT Act.”

I certainly feel a lot safer knowing that terrorist are on their honor to tell the truth when buying servers from Dell.

I think anyone who says “homework” is obviously lying, and should be turned in to the authorities.

Posted on June 23, 2005 at 12:00 PM56 Comments


Zwack June 23, 2005 12:16 PM

Saying “PATRIOT Act” doesn’t make it so. It also makes it much more likely that you will respond than if they said “Marketing Data”.


Francois Kashy June 23, 2005 12:24 PM

Exactly. Sounds like a deceptive marketing tactic. Maybe they’re just testing the waters to see how many customers are okay with answering the question. Could be just marketing, could be a Big Brother tactic from Dell or their partners in politics. Possible, if unlikely, to be related to legitimate terrorism investigation.

Wonder what happens if you refuse to say, or if they think you’re lying? For that matter, what kind of answer would possibly trigger any legitimate terrorist or criminal investigation? Does refusing to answer put you on a watch list somewhere?

IO ERROR June 23, 2005 12:30 PM

I mentioned this about a week ago in conjunction with the Dell laptop keylogger hoax that has been going around, and one of my readers commented that Dell is simply more responsible than most about following the laws.

I have no doubt that they asked skippy the question; it’s definitely in character for Dell.

Overthetop June 23, 2005 12:34 PM

If Dell ever asks me a stupid question like that my response will be “Never mind, cancel the order”.

Even the feds should aware that anyone can build anything they want from parts. And besides, building your own server is easier than dealing with the “English isn’t my first language” people at Dell.

Probitas June 23, 2005 1:01 PM

@ Overthetop

If you have an issue with the competence of the personnel at Dell, I hope that in the future, you can find a different way to express it. If having been born in an English speaking country were somehow an indicator of a person’s intelligence, I would assume there would be fewer stupid people in the English speaking world.

Anonymous June 23, 2005 1:08 PM

“Federal law requires that we ask what will this server be used for?”

“For serving data, of course! That’s what servers do, after all. And the keyboard? Well, I’ll be typing with it.”

Anonymous June 23, 2005 1:24 PM

I honestly wonder what action, if any, the service rep would have taken given a cool, calm response of “It will be used as a bomb-building documentation repository.”

Bruce Schneier June 23, 2005 1:26 PM

“For serving data, of course! That’s what servers do, after all. And the keyboard? Well, I’ll be typing with it.”

I’m pretty sure there’s a provision in the Patriot Act that specifically addresses pedantics.

Josh Rubin June 23, 2005 1:27 PM

Arghh. My first response would be that the Patriot Act is hundreds of pages of legal gobbledygook. Which part do they mean?

My reasoned response would be “I intend to use the server for political organizing and publishing criticism of the government. Do you have a problem with that?”

Those purposes are constitutionally protected.

x June 23, 2005 1:27 PM

Simple. Just answer “Well, just between you and me, this server will be part of a terrorist communication network.” Then hang up immediately.

Ari Heikkinen June 23, 2005 1:47 PM

“For serving data, of course! That’s what servers do, after all. And the keyboard? Well, I’ll be typing with it.”

That’s exactly what terrorists would say.

Davanum Srinivas June 23, 2005 1:56 PM

Is it even meaningful to ask this question on the “NONIMMIGRANT VISA APPLICATION”? (see

Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any
other unlawful purpose? Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the
U.S. Secretary of State? Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or
have you ever participated in genocide?

Don June 23, 2005 1:59 PM

I guess it’s covered by the pedantic clause Bruce mentionts, but I’d be inclined to say “okay, but I don’t know of any part of the Patriot Act that requires me to answer.”

Well, okay, I’d also be inclined to answer “porn.”

Ian June 23, 2005 2:11 PM

“What will be you be using the server for?”

“To store dead hookers. By the way, what did you say the dimensions were, again? I got a -lot- of dead hookers over here…”

Anonymous June 23, 2005 2:14 PM

“I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” Seriously, though, did they just lie because they didn’t want to tell they’re collecting marketing data, or is there indeed a provision in the “patriot” act that could be read as requiring this kind of question?

Jarrod June 23, 2005 2:18 PM


It’s a loophole of sorts. Lying on an application for citizenship is grounds for revocation of that citizenship and deportation from the US.

I recently ordered a server from Dell online, and all they wanted to know was whether it would be resold, and whether it was to be exported. If I had done this over the phone, my response to the “Federal law” point would have been, “Please tell me what part of Federal law, that I may look it up online while you wait for me to verify it.”

Josh O. June 23, 2005 2:49 PM


I don’t think Overthetop said anything about non English speaking peoples’ intelligence, only that it was difficult dealing with them. Assuming he only speaks English, then this is probably true for him.

If Ukrainians could only get customer service from people with my level of Ukrainian Language skills, then I bet they would be rather irritated as well.

Adam Dinwoodie June 23, 2005 3:38 PM

I remember ordering my new Dell computer from the website. I was using the UK “home” computing section, and was offered a drop down list for uses for the equiptment – home, commercial, government, and then the selection between nuclear, missile, chemical or biological weapon research and manufacture. I am rather curious as to what would happen if I told them that I was going to use the computer for nuclear weapons research…

Daedala June 23, 2005 3:48 PM

“I don’t know. I’m just in Purchasing,” is actually the same as, “I don’t know, as we operate in isolated cells.”

Sphelx Lizard June 23, 2005 4:16 PM

When I ordered my Dell laptop about 18 months ago; one of the final questions I was asked on the webform was…

“Do you plan to use the hardware purchased either in whole or component form in conjunction with weapons of mass destruction or plot to aquire such weapons?”

Not the exact wording; but it’s pretty much what it asked.

Oh noes! My plans have been rumbled by Dell!!

gandalf June 23, 2005 4:26 PM

Years ago, the INS had a form which asked of visiting Brits:

“Are you visiting the US in order to overthrow the elected government by use of force”

A wag entered:

“Sole purpose of visit”.

They let him in.

Anonymous June 23, 2005 4:54 PM

The salesperson was correct in that the questions are required in order to compy with federal law. However, he was incorrect as to the reason. It has nothing to do with the Patriot Act at all. It is required in order to comply with federal export compliance regulations.

Gerald June 23, 2005 5:27 PM

The crazy thing is: Dell Germany asks you the same thing! But: ‘federal…’ means ‘US-federal…’. So I am asked, whether I will use my notebook for whatever within oder without the US. The german government is not interested in the answer, but Dell says, the US authorities would be interested in knowing what that german guy does with a Irland-manufactured notebook after recieving his notebook in Germany?!
Dell tells me, that I am not allowed to use the notebook for any kind of terroristic activity.
But there’s another main point: Germany suffered terroristic acts in the 1970’s and 80’s. These were the first organised terroristic acts againt a whole country. And what did german authorites do? They did not ask, how notebooks are used, they tried to identify the terrorists using high-tech, created new methods, … – and they suceeded. The RAF doesn’t exist anymore.
So maybe your officials shall think about their methods.

Jeremy Leader June 23, 2005 5:53 PM

Gerald, you’re assuming that our officials’ primary goal is to identify and eliminate terrorists. Based on their actions since 9/11, it’s pretty clear that that is not their primary goal.

Their goal appears to be to get people sufficiently worried about terrorist threats to allow our government officials to do what they want. Frequently reminding people that “there are terrorists out there who are doing their best to hurt you; we are hunting them; if you obstruct us, the terrorists may succeed in hurting you, or we might mistake you for a terrorist, with dire consequences” seems to be pretty effective so far in achieving their goal.

Anonymous June 23, 2005 6:24 PM

“The word retarded is often underused in the modern world.”

We’ve moved on to ‘Mongoloid idiot’.

Sig June 24, 2005 1:20 AM

Sadly, it could really be in USA PATRIOT, and not even the legislators that voted for it would know for sure…

I’ve heard of ‘security by obscurity’ but I’m still coming to grips with the results of ‘security by panic.’

Arta June 24, 2005 1:28 AM

I’m with Overthetop. I’d tell them it’s none of their business, and they can cancel the order if they don’t like it.

This kind of thing really drives me nuts!

Holger June 24, 2005 2:33 AM

The words “patriot act” seem to shut down the brain functions in some, if not most Americans. So Dell knows about a government regulation to ask for the purpose of something they sell while everyone else in the business doesn’t? What kind of patriotism could that be they are acting for? Certainly not for the country, but for the company. Do you believe the sales representative asking you is a covered FBI agent or something? No, you are just phished for information by social engineering. I wonder when it becomes a tactics to ask people for their account passwords this way. The only correct answer to this kind of question, by anyone not having shown you their badge, is: Screw You.

Arturo Quirantes June 24, 2005 2:58 AM


It’s a loophole of sorts. Lying on an application for citizenship is grounds for revocation of that citizenship and deportation from the US.”

Fine. But one of the questions I was asked when filling the application form (for a short visit!) was something like “Were you part of a nazi organization during 1933-45?”. As I was not even born there, and Uncle Sam knows my age (it’s on the passport), would I be a liar if I write “yes”? It is obvious it cannot be true, but I would not be really lying if I tell you I was walking on the Moon last week, huh?

Oh, and then, if I say “yes” under “are you intending to kill the President of the US” is a no-win situation. If I’m lying, I’m out of the US courtesy of Homeland Security; If I am saying the truth, lying to Customs will be the least of my worries if I am ever caught (and if I am not, who cares?). So do they REALLY expect somebody to choose anything but “no”

George W. June 24, 2005 4:06 AM

Questions like this aren’t for improving security, they’re just for maintaining the facade of security. A real terrorist would just lie, of course. The fact that they even bother with such questions is pretty insulting.

Probably a marketing question though.

davee June 24, 2005 6:58 AM

Bruce said: “I’m pretty sure there’s a provision in the Patriot Act that specifically addresses pedantics.”

Seeing as you are referring to a person, I believe you should actually say: “… that specifically addresses pedants.” 🙂

Your partner in pedantry,


Bruce Schneier June 24, 2005 8:01 AM

“I’m with Overthetop. I’d tell them it’s none of their business, and they can cancel the order if they don’t like it.

“This kind of thing really drives me nuts!”

What do you do about the irritating question when you want to mail a package at the Post Office? “Does this package contain anything liquid, something, perishable or potentially hazardous?”

That question really annoys me. In the beginning I refused to answer and sent my package via FedEx. I demanded to see a copy of the regulations. I argued with the supervisors. I wrote to my Senator.

Now I just accept it.

My fear is that we’ll all start accepting all these little assaults on our freedoms.

Daedala June 24, 2005 9:26 AM

“Does this package contain anything liquid, something, perishable or potentially hazardous?”

That one doesn’t actually bother me. I generally considered it more of a reminder. I know people who forget that kind of thing…. It’s like throwing out hazardous batteries; many people just forget. I do agree that it can be asked in a bad way, though.

I mailed a perishable cake once. It was enrobed in chocolate and I’m told it survived the journey really well. I just lied to them about it.

David June 24, 2005 9:30 AM

@ Bruce

The question about liquid, and potentially hazardous is more about protecting the Post Office employees. If the contents are, lets say Acetone, and it spills on the Postal employee they can be injured by it (chemical burns), or it may catch on fire and burn their truck down.

It’s more about liability than security.

The perisable probably is the Agriculture Department looking for movement of fruit and other items that would move pests from one state to another (another good thing to prevent in general).

David June 24, 2005 9:34 AM

@ Anonymous who said:

“It will be used as a bomb-building documentation repository.”

I wonder what LBL would say about a Dell Server they are ordering?

“We use it to prototype nuclear explosions to increase the yield and ensure that they go off properly”

I wonder how that would go over with Homeland Security given that it is actually some of the work that LBL does (and no they arn’t a US Government body).

quantum June 24, 2005 10:57 AM

“It will be used for computing. Aren’t you a computer company?”

Security theater indeed.

BTW, anyone ever read the license agreement to the free Zone Alarm? It has a section about “weapons of mass destruction.”

What a world.

jammit June 24, 2005 11:43 AM

How funny. I just ordered a Dell server recently, and was asked the same question. I answered honestly. I said I don’t know, I’m just ordering it for a Muslim guy. It was sent to me anyway. The Muslim guy is my boss, and he had me order it but he didn’t tell me it was for a lawyers office at the time. I know the lawyers well, and they mostly handle immigration and work closely with INS, FBI, and the Secret Service. I’m waiting for a “visit”.

Dossy June 24, 2005 2:06 PM

Everyone ordering servers from Dell should simply respond, “Oh, it’s for my growing collection of child pornography and encrypted Al Quaeda terrorism directives.”

You might not get the server, but imagine how much fun you’ll have explaining to the agents from Homeland Security why they’ve totally wasted their time spying on you.

Our tax dollars hard at work. God, bless America — and save it from itself.

A June 24, 2005 2:49 PM


To deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes.

I use it for other purposes

Rich June 25, 2005 1:02 AM

Dell computers also require you to accept the license agreement of any installed software by pressing the spacebar on first boot. Of course, you can’t even find out what software is installed, let alone read the license agreements, without pressing the space bar to get past the clickwrap.

Andy June 26, 2005 7:08 AM

“Facilitating Wanking” — this pretty much sums up most of the discussions in the thread. The question is Dell’s marketing department disguised as ‘Homeland Security’.

another_bruce June 26, 2005 11:13 AM

well mister dell rep, what’s it worth to you? if i don’t tell you, you prepared to go to the wall on this? you prepared to lose my account, be the subject of a letter to the ceo AND get ridiculed in my blog? tell me NOW, you RETARDED CUBE SLAVE!

mango October 8, 2008 2:54 AM

I bought a dell via phone in october 2008 and was asked 3 or 4 questions:
1)who is going to be using this computer?
2)what city is it going to be used in?
3)what purpose will it be used for?

the salesman said the department of homeland security required the questions.

HumHo October 8, 2008 12:25 PM

Why doesn’t the government just give up with these silly piecemeal civil liberties changes and BE A MAN. Just get rid of all liberties at once.

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