US Customs Has The Right To Search Your Laptop Without Cause : What You Can Do

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1/08/2008 – US Customs Has The Right To Search Your Laptop Without Cause : What You Can Do

Over the past few weeks there have been many discussions between business travelers related to the U.S Customs & Boarder Protection‘s (US CBP) announcement that have the absolute right to detain laptops and all other digital storage devices for the review of the data upon entry into the United States. This full disclosure from US CBP was released on the 16th of July 2008 and was previously supported by ruling dating back to 2006 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (9th Circuit Court).

I am discussing this today because of a flurry of e-mail received this morning regarding an article in the Washington Post today regarding this subject. I’m not sure why the Washington Post decided to place this on page A1 this morning, as it is not breaking news, but a long standing US CBP policy that is not new.

So what does this mean for travelers entering the United States when crossing through a US CBP screening area? It means that anything you have with you, from a Post-It note in your pocket to your Blackberry is subject to being detained and reviewed. The US CBP is able to review anything they’d like without any probably cause or suspicion and this can happen to anyone, both foreigners entering the United States and United States Citizens.

While the policy is alarming to many it has been in place for years, even prior to the 2006 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court. When you enter the United States (or most any other country) the area between your gate the terminal you are not technically admitted to the country yet. Even once your passport has been stamped you may still be stopped by Customs and have your bags checked at their discretion and without cause, because you are not in the country yet. Once you cross through the exit into the public space in the terminal THEN you are in the country and then you can argue your liberties (depending on the country).

I am not going to go into the details what the reasoning behind the policy established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (US DHS) and the US CBP, but I will give some business travelers options on how to avoid these problems should you get stopped.

Clearly the biggest issue is for those that work in professions that require confidentiality, such as lawyers, doctors, government contractors, technology, etc. Having anyone review your documents can technically be illegal, and this is especially true of those in the medical field. This US CBP policy directly conflicts with doctor-patient laws in the United States.

If you worry about your data being reviewed you can use software that fully backs up your computer, then you can wipe the hard drive and enter the United States with a clean computer. One way some business are doing this is by using software, such as TrueCrypt, to back up the computer in it’s entirely, uploading the file created by TrueCrypt to an FTP site, then wiping the computer clean. Upon entry into the United States not only is the data protected by an encrypted password, but also the computer is essentially clean. If you choose to unlock the computer for the US CBP they can see nothing by a clean machine.

Some business travelers who use Mac have been backing up their entire system via Apple‘s TimeMachine, then FedExing that drive home, overnight while uploading the last un-backed up files to an FTP then wiping the machine. Again, working this way allows you to cross US CBP with a totally clean machine; there is no data for US CBP to review. When you get home you hook the external drive to the laptop and fully restore the laptop (including software) to how it was before you wiped the drive.

I know these are extreme measures, and there is nothing on my laptop that could be used against me by the US CBP, however since they give no indication of what they are looking for or what is determined to be data that could link me to a ‘terrorist cell’ I do worry about them searching my computer.

For years I documented homeland security as a news photographer. During this time I made thousands of images of the TSA, Airport Police, US Coast Guard operation, US Immigrations, US Customs and other ‘national security’ agencies. What happens when they comb my computer and find some images in portfolios and subfolder on the subject that show detailed images of airport security that are really no threat at all? Would I be subject to detainment? What happens when they pull up a photo of me standing on the roof of Basrah International Airport (BSR) in Iraq where you can clearly read the airport name in both English and Arabic behind me?

I have not found a good solution to backing up and wiping a Blackberry so if any of you have suggestions for this feel free to let me know.

I leave you with these wise words from a Founding Father of the United States, Benjamin Franklin – “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Happy Flying!

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