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It Came From the Chat: Are Searches and Seizures Unreasonable?

Scott Vogel

It's a question that's been raised by business travelers all over the country. A version of it surfaced in our chat on Feb. 11:

Arlington, VA - Searching my BlackBerry?: Why in the world should Customs have the right to search my BlackBerry and laptop files just because I am coming home from being in London on business? ... I have no problem -- at all -- with them fully searching my bags and person. But as I've seen first hand they seemingly have carte blanche to read my e-mails and personal files without a warrant. Some of this stuff is sensitive work materials on an encrypted laptop. But that doesn't matter to them. ... Frankly these Gestapo tactics sound like something we would find in a communist country.

When we published the above post, readers began weighing in almost immediately, many objecting vehemently to Arlington's treatment ("It is a blatant violation of our rights as Americans."). Later we received e-mails from travelers who defended searches by Customs and Border Protection: ("If you bring paper documents into the country, CPB is allowed to inspect them. ... to insure they aren't child pornography, or material meant to support criminal activity or terrorism. Why should documents brought across in electronic form be any different?")

Opinions on the searches may differ, but one thing's for certain: The chorus of complaints by travelers is growing. Some aren't aware that Customs has the right to seize laptops, cell phones, iPods and other electronic devices, and that Customs agents routinely ask for passwords and other information that will help them determine what information is contained on the device, some of it perhaps proprietary. Other travelers are demanding to know the government's criteria and parameters for conducting these searches.

It's the latter impulse that led to a lawsuit against the Dept. of Homeland Security filed on Feb. 7 by the Asian Law Caucus and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The suit [PDF], filed in a California District Court, seeks to force Customs and Border Protection (which is a division of the DHS) to disclose its "policies and procedures on the questioning, search, and inspection of travelers entering or returning to the United States at ports of entry." The suit alleges, in part, that border agents have begun inspecting everything from a traveler's handwritten notes to cell phone directories, and that "CBP officers have also opened travelers' laptop computers to examine their saved files and look at their stored browser information. Individuals who protest such questioning or searches have been told that they have no choice but to cooperate."

Civil liberties group charge that such practices constitute unreasonable searches and seizures, and therefore a violation of the Fourth Amendment, while others say that making its interrogation policies public would compromise the CBP's ability to identify potential terrorists.

Who's in the right? Who's in the wrong? And has anyone out there experienced a Customs search that might add to our knowledge on this issue?

By Scott Vogel |  February 19, 2008; 7:23 AM ET  | Category:  Scott Vogel
Previous: Stupidcations: Spare Me, Please | Next: Insta-CoGo: Will Amtrak Be More Secure?

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I don't relish the thought that Customs can seize my laptop and look through the files (that seems to feel very much like unwarranted searches). Mostly because I waited a long time to find a nice laptop on sale so I could have a solid portable display platform without paying an arm and a leg. I don't want my laptop disappearing into Customs on a whim.

(Since I don't Blackberry or really a cell phone that often, this is not as high a priority concern for me, but that is also troubling.)

So I would very much like guidelines laid out for international travel, both in the States and in other countries. I am an American, but as I'm of Italian descent, I have dark curly hair and olive skin. I'd like to know how to prep my electronics for Customs, since I already go through enough "random" TSA searches already State-side.

But for those worried about keeping their privacy, has anyone mentioned CCleaner? (http://www.ccleaner.com/) This is a freeware utility I discovered through an antivirus forum after I thought I had an infection that slipped through my AV software (wasn't an infection, but I learned a lot anyway).

It is spyware free, and does a great job of cleaning out things like temp files, cookies, browsing history, etc. Now this does, of course, mean you have to remember your passwords and such since it kills your cookies, but I've found since I started cleaning my computer off on a regular basis, it runs a lot faster (especially Internet surfing).

A thorough CCleaner run before your International flights would keep casual searches of your Internet surfing history safe through eradication (though it probably wouldn't serve a challenge to a computer professional determined to find that info).

Posted by: Chasmosaur | February 19, 2008 9:18 AM

My prediction is that this screening - which certainly feels illegal - will only last until some over-eager Customs beaver confiscates the secure laptop of the wrong government official, who will then call his/her boss at home to report the security lapse, who will in turn call the head of DHS at home to "discuss" the matter.

For the rest of us schnooks, Chasmosaur's suggestion of CCleaner or similar software is a good one. If you have documents other than your browser history that you don't want read, consider emailing them to yourself and then deleting from your HD (using some "permanent erase" software, of course). Talk to your corporate IT people about alternatives for managing company materials.

Does anybody have any suggestions for ways to maintain/back up cellphone-based (not smartphone) data?

Posted by: BxNY | February 19, 2008 1:46 PM

This country is going in the wrong direction. The idea that the border control agents have the unfettered right to read anything we bring with us into the country -- and to punish us if we refuse to "cooperate" -- is antithetical to our founding principles.

Posted by: Andy | February 19, 2008 7:01 PM

Since I don't have a laptop, or Blackberry, this will probably remain a non-issue for me. It sounds that Chasmosaur has a good idea. But, I am curious what exactly these agents are looking for. If they are looking for links to terrorist organizations, that might be a needle in a haystack. What if the laptop owner is fluent in multiple languages? Does that mean if there is an email in arabic, the person is detained until someone who can translate the email has arrived? If one of the aims is to catch kiddie porn, do the agents screen all DVD's and VHS tapes found in luggage? Since I catch a news report almost once a month about some local perv being arrested for downloading child porn. I would think actually moving the hard copy could be "safer" for the perp.

Posted by: rja112 | February 20, 2008 2:28 AM

I guess if I had something to hide (something I was ashamed of or afraid I would go to jail for) on my laptop then I guess I would be in an uproar about this too. But since I don't then search away. Do you really think they really care two bits about what you have on your laptop unless it is linked to terrorism or criminal in nature? Sorry but your personal life just isn't that interesting. I think it would be a pretty safe bet to say that you would be thrilled if they stopped a terrorist and found plans on his laptop to bomb your office building - effectively thwarting his mission or searched a perverts Blackberry and found where he had been viewing child pornography - of your child. If you have nothing to hide then don't worry about it and let them do their job - they are trained professionals.

Posted by: glad to be american | February 20, 2008 11:52 PM

Another good program is TrueCrypt. It's freeware allows you to use plausible deniability to protect your private data. It is still on the HDD, but is on an invisible partition and can only be accessed with a password.

Posted by: OmegaWolf747 | February 23, 2008 7:28 PM

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