U.S. Customs Seizing Laptops
I’ve heard many anecdotal stories about U.S. Customs and Border Protection seizing, copying data from, or otherwise accessing laptops of people entering the country. But this is very mainstream:
Today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Asian Law Caucus, two civil liberties groups in San Francisco, plan to file a lawsuit to force the government to disclose its policies on border searches, including which rules govern the seizing and copying of the contents of electronic devices. They also want to know the boundaries for asking travelers about their political views, religious practices and other activities potentially protected by the First Amendment. The question of whether border agents have a right to search electronic devices at all without suspicion of a crime is already under review in the federal courts.
The lawsuit was inspired by two dozen cases, 15 of which involved searches of cellphones, laptops, MP3 players and other electronics. Almost all involved travelers of Muslim, Middle Eastern or South Asian background, many of whom, including Mango and the tech engineer, said they are concerned they were singled out because of racial or religious profiling.
Some of this seems pretty severe:
“I was assured that my laptop would be given back to me in 10 or 15 days,” said [Maria] Udy, who continues to fly into and out of the United States. She said the federal agent copied her log-on and password, and asked her to show him a recent document and how she gains access to Microsoft Word. She was asked to pull up her e-mail but could not because of lack of Internet access. With ACTE’s help, she pressed for relief. More than a year later, Udy has received neither her laptop nor an explanation.
Kamran Habib, a software engineer with Cisco Systems, has had his laptop and cellphone searched three times in the past year. Once, in San Francisco, an officer “went through every number and text message on my cellphone and took out my SIM card in the back,” said Habib, a permanent U.S. resident. “So now, every time I travel, I basically clean out my phone. It’s better for me to keep my colleagues and friends safe than to get them on the list as well.”
Privacy? There’s no need to worry:
Hollinger said customs officers “are trained to protect confidential information.”
I know I feel better.
I strongly recommend the two-tier encryption strategy I described here. And I even more strongly recommend cleaning out your laptop and BlackBerry regularly; if you don’t have it on your computer, no one else can get his hands on it. This defense not only works against U.S. customs, but against the much more likely threat of you losing the damn thing.
And the TSA wants you to know that it’s not them.