International Travel Alert: Your Laptop Can Be Seized by Federal Agents Without A Warrant

tsaDid 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.

Happy travels.


What’s Bugging You? Is Parental Spying Increasing Millennials’ Tolerance for Surveillance?

It’s the sort of thing we would have expected the Soviets to do if they had survived into the new millennia: intercept laptop deliveries   and install malware   so they can spy on users. For those of us Baby Boomers who grew up during the cold war when we condemned the enemy for spying on its citizens,  intrusions of this nature are  untenable. However, I wonder if the millennials have been partially inoculated against feeling that same level of rage when they’re being monitored. A growing number of parents are keeping a close eye on their teens by installing camcorders in their rooms, tracking their every movement by way of their phones’ GPS devices, and demanding their children’s Facebook and E-Mail passwords so that they can read what they’re posting and what they’re receiving.


A teenage boy and longtime family friend recently posted a plea on his Facebook page for his friends to be careful with their comments.  “My parents read everything I post and if they don’t like it they make me take it down. If they don’t like what my friends write, they tell me to unfriend them.”

Some parents have even installed  the same type of spyware on their children’s computers that the NSA is installing on  computers-in-transit: a program which allows the voyeur to monitor what is being typed on the user’s screen in real time.  These young people will either become anaesthetized to those in power looking over their shoulder  or they will find ever newer and more creative ways to elude surveillance.

When I recently had lunch with a university student who is majoring in a foreign language, she told me she would   eventually like to work for U. S. intelligence. “Maybe I’ll become a translator and I’ll get to be one of those people who listens in on everyone’s phone calls. I know it’s wrong but it would be an interesting job.”


What’s bugging  you and your office these days?  It might just be the NSA. Good luck finding a pest control company to take care of that.

(Photo courtesy of

Do You Know Who Your Friends Are?

Do You Know Who Your Friends Are?

A Swiss employee has been fired for accessing Facebook after going home sick with a migraine so severe she could not bear to look at her illuminated monitor and said she needed to lie down in a darkened room. The woman says she accessed Facebook in bed from her Ipod.

According to the online BBC article Ill Worker Fired Over FaceBook, the woman believes her employee created a fictitious Facebook account and spied on her after becoming her friend. The so-called friend disappeared from Facebook the day after the woman was fired.

As Social Networking creates an Orwellian environment offering an inside look into employees’ thoughts, activities, and lifestyles, questions will continue to arise on what constitutes ethical and non-ethical monitoring by employers through this medium.

Techno Speak


Cookies aren't what they used to be

Cookies aren't what they used to be

Do you ever feel like you need a translator when it comes to speaking with people in IT? If so, you’re not alone. According to the BBC online article Gadget Jargon Still Confuses Many, this problem has become so common there is now a Plain English Campaign underway to tear down the “walls of techno-babble” and to rid the world of computer jargon.

A survey conducted by the Gadget Helpline” resulted in the following list of the Top Ten Technology Terms laypeople find the most confusing. That is, these were the ten most confusing terms at the time this blog was being written. There will probably be ten new ones by lunchtime!

For those of you who not fluent in Techno Speak, I have looked up these terms online and done my best to decipher their definitions.

Dongle – A small, portable piece of hardware that connects to your computer. For example, a USB device.

Cookie– Small parcels of text sent by a server to your web browser which may track or maintain information related to your browsing practices. Cookies have some positive uses, like remembering your login in and password so that you don’t have to sign back into a site (such as Facebook or Yahoo Mail), each time you visit it and they make online shopping carts possible.

WAP – A WAP is a unit used to measure the size of a software program. One WAP is equivalent to one-hundred thousand lines of source code.

Phone Jack – I thought maybe this was a trick term. Who doesn’t know what a phone jack is? Then it struck me; there are new millenials who cut their teeth on cell phones and who have had little experience with landlines. Maybe this was a case of a term being too old rather than too new to be understood by some of the people surveyed.

Navi Key – defines Navi Key (short for Navigation Key) as “a keyboard key used to move the pointer around the screen.” On a traditional keyboard, the Navi Keys are your four arrow keys With the advent of the mouse and the touch screen, Navi Keys have become superfluous on keyboards, but they now appear on those portable electronic devices on which you have to navigate up, down, and sideways to display objects on a screen.

Time Shifting – Recording a program so you can watch or listen to it later.

Digital TV – Apparently while many of the people surveyed own a digital TV, they have little concept of how it actually works. TV According to, digital TV is the encoding of picture information into digital signals which are transmitted and then decoded by a receiver. Digital TV is a time series of discrete signals “consisting of a sequence of quantities… A time series that is a function over a domain of discrete integers.” Is there an algebra teacher in the house?

Ethernet – No, this term does not refer to the anaesthetizing effects of the web during prolonged surfing. Rather it has more to do with that jumble of cables behind your desk. The Ethernet consists of the cables and access points used to connect local area networks (LAN), which may include computers, printers, and other shared hardware, not to mention your DSL cable if you haven’t graduated to WiFi.

PC Suite – Nokia’s PC Suite is a proprietary software package that allows Nokia mobile devices to interface with computers running on Microsoft Windows.

Desktop – (1) A flat surface used to collect all manner of clutter; (2) What you see on your monitor: your background, virtual folders, icons representing the programs you frequently access, and the fingerprint left by a co-worker who pointed something out while eating greasy fries.

Hey, You, Get off of My Cloud!

Hey, You, Get off of My Cloud!

It seems everyone has their head in the clouds these days, as more organizations move away from installing software and storing data on their hard drives on so-called computer clouds – computer storage and operation platforms they access online.


The 2006 revision to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures (FRCP) requiring companies to store all electronic information (including e-mails, voice mails, and instant messaging threads) and to produce them in the event of discovery, has driven human resource professionals, risk managers, and information technology staffers to new levels of fear and trepidation. Many companies simply can’t afford the cost of the infrastructure required to archive this quantity of data in a way that it can be efficiently mined to comply with subpoenas. Contracting with a cloud-based storage service that specializes in archiving and retrieving electronic data can solve this problem. It can also boost a company’s record retention credibility should it come under scrutiny by regulators. While such services may be costly, the organization’s using them save on the sheer amount of hardware they would have to purchase and maintain in order to store all the data required to reply with the 2006 FRCP Revision.

Computer clouds aren’t just about virtually expanding your closet space. Many companies now employ online cloud-based programs and software instead of installing programs on their mainframes or computers. A major advantage of these Platform as a Service (PaaS) or Software as a Service (SaaS) clouds is that the software they provide is regularly updated. This can save organizations massive amounts of time traditionally devoted to RFPs, reviewing bids, and meeting with vendors, not to mention installing and implementing news software, whenever their existing software becomes obsolete – say between lunch and dinner.

Another benefit of computer clouds is that should a fire, a natural disaster, or not so natural disaster should shut down your business site indefinitely, you can still access the data and programs used in your organization’s day to day operations. The moment you set up shop elsewhere, be it temporary or otherwise, you can pick up where you left off as far as your data and computing needs are concerned.

Likewise, computer clouds benefit employees who regularly travel on business, as they provide these employees with a means for accessing the organization’s database and programs from anywhere on the globe. This benefit also serves as a solution to the risk of laptops and other personal electronic devices being subjected to electronic searches at border crossings. Employees do not have to store sensitive or proprietary information on the hardware they carry, since they will be able to access it online.


The obvious drawback to cloud computing is the potential risks entailed in storing sensitive or proprietary information online. As techniques for securing and encrypting information become ever more sophisticated, more organizations are willing to take this risk.