Technology Advisor Blog

Think Twice Before you Travel Overseas with your Laptop

Posted by Ann Westerheim on 1/9/12 8:57 AM

Laptop SearchThe Boston Sunday Globe had some interesting reading yesterday:  "Laptop seizures at customs cause thorny legal dispute".  When David House, a former MIT researcher, returned from vacation in Mexico a little over a year ago, federal agents seized his laptop at customs during a connection in Chicago, and kept it for almost two months.  There was no search warrant, and he wasn't charged with a crime.  The article describes a "Consitution-free zone" where governement agents don't need probable cause or reasonable suspicion to seize property, as long as it's not "invasive". 

The Customs and Border Protection agency says the power to seize laptops is necessary to find information about terrorists, drug smugglers, and other criminals trying to enter the country.  However, how far does this go?  Apparently federal agents wanted to learn more about House's connection to Bradley Manning, the US Army private who leaked classified government information to the website WikiLeaks.  David had met Bradley at a hackers convention in the past.  In the two months that David's laptop was seized, government agents had access to his files, photos, bank account passwords... everything about him, without any specific charge against him.

The article cites a survey last month by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives which found that nearly half of the participating companies did not know customs agents could inspect, copy, or even seize travelers’ laptops.

If you travel outside of the US think twice about what you carry with you on your laptop, smart phone, iPad or anywhere else you store files and sensitive information.  People who travel with confidential corporate documents, trade secrets, or attorneys with confidential client information really need to be aware of the risks. 

Balancing national security with civil rights can be challenging, but when you consider how much personal information is stored on your electronic devices, many argue that seizing laptops crosses the line and is in fact "invasive". John Reinstein is the ACLU lawyer representing House and he summarizes the argument for changing the law:  "Given the role of computers in modern society and the extent of the information that people carry with them on electronic devices, we have asked the court to acknowledge that the search of a computer should be treated as an invasive and overly intrusive search.’’ He adds,  “Under existing rules, you shouldn’t take anything across the border that you don’t want to expose to another set of eyes.’’

Some corporations are now requiring that laptops be wiped clean of sensitive information before travelling overseas.  You can use your laptop to access files stored on a remote server ("in the cloud") or for secure remote access to another PC.  This is inconvenient because you will always need an Internet connection to work.  Some people also create encrypted volumes on their hard drive to hide sensitive files.  With the BYOD trend (Bring your Own Device to work), things get even more complicated.  Bottom line, if you don't want potentially ALL your information exposed, create a game plan in advance, (and make sure everything is backed up).

Tags: computer security, customs, seized laptop

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