Did you know that at the United States Border, U.S. agents can legally seize your laptop, iPad, and other electronic devices without a search warrant and without probable cause? Not only can they seize it and search its contents, they can take their own sweet time doing so. You may not see your laptop again for weeks.
Based on legal precedent, the Fourth Amendment — the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures — does not apply along the border. Furthermore, said border can extend one-hundred miles into the interior of the country.
There have also been cases of laptops being seized from airline passengers returning from foreign countries. The government may be backing off on this particular invasion of privacy, however, as it has just reached a settlement with Human Rights Activist David House, whose laptop, camera, and USB drive were seized when he returned to the United States after vacationing abroad. In the settlement, the government has agreed to destroy all data it obtained from his laptop and other electronics.
Then again, the government is not paying any restitution and, according to the terms of the settlement, House is responsible for his own legal fees. So what is to stop agents from doing the same thing in the future?
Some travelers with computers containing confidential or proprietary information now scrub their hard drives prior to traveling internationally (not terribly practical if you’re traveling on business). Others have an expert encrypt their data behind a secure password. The catch is, should your laptop or iPad be seized, neither of these strategies will help you get it back any sooner. On the contrary, I’m willing to bet that if the contents are encrypted, government agents are likely to hold it all the longer as they attempt to hack it.
In addition, there is also a possibility that your computer may be returned to you with a few freebies added. As I discussed in a previous post, the NSA has been intercepting laptops in transit and installing malware on them which can record what users are typing across their screens.
Using a malware compromised computer offline may not necessarily protect you from prying eyes. It has recently come to light that the NSA has embedded some computers (mostly those owned by foreigners or by suspected terrorists) with with tiny circuit boards or USB cards that emit radio waves, enabling them to spy on offline computers.
True, you may be the last person in America security personnel would ever mistake for a spy. Then again my clean-cut, professionally dressed brother with an Italian surname was once detained and interrogated for hours at a Canadian airport because his name closely resembled that of a suspected terrorist on their no-fly list. I guess there’s a branch of the family we don’t know about.
I have dealt with this issue by purchasing a travel-laptop. On it, I only store those files I will absolutely need while traveling. If it gets seized, damaged, lost, or stolen, the harm is minimal; my regular laptop is waiting for me back home. If you do this, you can carry along any confidential data you may need on a thumb-drive (hopefully they don’t seize that as well!) or make use cloud storage to access your data from anywhere in the world.