As Expected, Court Says Customs Can Search Your Laptop

from the you-have-no-privacy-at-the-border dept

As was widely expected, an appeals court has ruled that customs agents have every right to search the content of your laptop, reversing the only court case that had ruled otherwise (a few others had previously said such searches were just dandy). The court found (just like the other rulings) that there’s an “exception” to the 4th Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure at the border. The government, of course, claims that it needs to be able to search laptops to keep people safe — but it doesn’t explain why it needs the ability to search any laptop even if there’s no suspicion or reason to do a further search. The lower court had noted, correctly, that there’s so much data and information on a laptop, that it’s effectively an extension of your brain. This makes sense. Since so much is digital today, you don’t pack up your computer like you pack your suitcase. Everything is already on it. So while you can understand why it’s okay to search your suitcases at the border, giving full access to a laptop seems to go beyond reason… unfortunately, the courts disagree. In the meantime, if you’re traveling into the country, consider anything on your laptop fair game… unless, of course, it’s encrypted. In that case, at least one court says you don’t need to give up your encryption key.

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Comments on “As Expected, Court Says Customs Can Search Your Laptop”

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Ron (profile) says:

What About ...

… deleting files or adding spyware? Do the customs agents have the right to do that as well? They can already confiscate contraband items. Can they delete (confiscate) files they don’t like? Since they already have the right to rummage around in our computers can they insert spyware that will track and report certain activities to make their job a little easier when we again cross a boarder?

JD (user link) says:

Some bullshit

There is something seriously wrong with the legal definitions being attached to laptops here, encrypting things makes it a 1st amendment right but leaving them unencrypted makes them public property subject to search at any time? Laptops aren’t luggage that can house weapons/bombs (aside from the basic please open it/turn it on test). I’d guess its only a matter of time before this is contested and a new, possibly better possibly more screwed up definition is applied to laptops and personal data as it moves through country borders.

Overcast says:

Let’s say I was really ‘up to something’.

I can pretty much guarantee a bunch of customs agents won’t find it.

There’s removable media, you could change hard drives, use a flash drive, keep it on a remote site, download it from a remote host, or write it on a taco bell napkin.

It’s just one more step taken to “control” us.

lebertarian says:

Re: Exactly right!

Only a moron would carry a laptop to an airport with incriminating data on it when you can safely hide the data on the web (or their secure LAN back at the cave, for that matter).

As usual, our stupid government’s response is to harrass the innocent and make life more miserable. Why do lawmakers ALWAYS choose the worst possible course?

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Hardware - Yes, Digital Content - No

They should be permitted to look over, inside, and at all the parts of your physical laptop to check for explosives, contraband, endangered species, weapons, etc. That’s the job of customs.

But they should not be permitted to inspect the information contents of the memory and storage media. This is information, and is protected. Any such information could enter this country over any communication network, P2P, private lines, encrypted VPNs, mailed disks, satellite, etc. Not only is it against our rights, but it is unproductive use of a border guard’s time.

Can I simply lock my laptop with fingerprint encryption and refuse to log them in?

Katie says:

Re: Hardware - Yes, Digital Content - No

Yes, you can. If the data is encrypted, it is safe. Your password is private knowledge and can be withheld on the grounds that releasing it could violate your basic rights to privacy and security.

Anyway, there’s an easy last-ditch security measure any good hacker employs: a secondary login with root privileges that executes “find /home/ | shred” when logging in.

For the non-BASH-savvy, this finds all of ‘s data and pipes it into the shred program, which writes over the file with random data before unlinking it from the filesystem (deleting only does the latter).

Katie says:

Re: Re: Hardware - Yes, Digital Content - No

Looks like my “<main user>” got misinterpreted as broken HTML. Let’s try that again:

Anyway, there’s an easy last-ditch security measure any good hacker employs: a secondary login with root privileges that executes “find /home/<main user> | shred” when logging in.

For the non-BASH-savvy, this finds all of <main user>’s data and pipes it into the shred program, which writes over the file with random data before unlinking it from the filesystem (deleting only does the latter).

Mike Hoague says:


This just shows how misinformed our judicial system is. Are they looking for plans for how you plan on taking down the plane your flying on? I suppose it would be in a file called take_down_the_plane.doc and of course it would be located on the desktop. I guess email will be next or maybe forums such as thi…………………….

Anonymous Coward says:

There are things on my laptop that I do not want other people to see like nude pics of my girlfriend so to hide them just use one of the system folders to place a ziped file and rename the file from “” to “sounds”. I like useing winace to compress and not as many people have access to .ace files.

Nasch says:

Re: Re:

If you really don’t want those things exposed (your naked gf, etc), then real security is (as always) better than security through obscurity. Renaming your archive will *probably* work, but it would really suck if it didn’t. Encrypt your files using TrueCrypt as others have said (it’s easy to use and very secure), or some other program of your choice, and then even if someone gets their hands on your stuff they won’t even be able to tell what it is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Remove the HD from your laptop when you travel and carry a spare blank one with just the OS or us VM and keep the actual virtual machine you use on a flash drive or something, there are so many ways you can circumvent this issue or just make it a pain in the ass for them to search. Hey, while your looking at my laptop here’s the other 150 Virtual machines that i use as well and you’ll need to search those as well right?

Michael Armstrong (user link) says:

Remember that certain encryption technologies and strengths are classified as munitions. As such, there are extra restrictions for import/export.

Obviously that’s not all they’re looking for, but it wouldn’t surprise me that’s where it started and went down the slippery slope from there.

Not that I agree with the decision — I don’t — nor do I necessarily agree with the encryption as munitions thing either.

chris (profile) says:

EEE ftw!

my EEE boots off it’s internal flash, a thumb drive, or a SD card. i use the default install (the fisher price UI) on the internal flash for school stuff and i run back track on a card for my *ahem* hobby.

so if i wanted to slip into or out of the country i can just leave my laptop in fisher price mode until i get to where i am going and make other arrangements for my backtrack card.

as for data, just encrypt it and push it someplace safe on the internet, cross the border, and pull it back down. you could do it at the airport on the wireless network if you were feeling particularly snarky… you tunnel your traffic thru SSH on potentially hostile networks, right?

Rose M. Welch says:

This is hilarious.

I have a 1G micro SD card that goes in my telephone. I can put files on there that can’t be seen on my telephone.

Are they going to take it out and look at that too? And does that mean that they’re going to invest money in keeping every kind of micromemory chip because I sure as hell won’t carry the adaptor with me.

If I need to take a laptop somewhere, I can just remove the battery and send it ahead, or make sure the battery has just a few minutes of juice and send the charger ahead.

If I can think of these things, criminals can think of better ones.

This is an asinine waste of money and time.

Big Mike (profile) says:

All I see is How too's

It’s like all of you are more concerned with how to get around the problem instead of seeing that the problem is, Home land security is a Joke!!! Why is time being spent on searching laptops? I wonder what the percentage of old ladies laptops are being searched because we all know that’s where the we are the most vulnerable to attack from.

Anon2 says:

Not so funny and not the last word

There are actually cases bubbling up in the federal courts concerning the related issue, touched on by many of the comments here, about whether Customs agents (and the gov’t generally) has the right to force someone to give up their password, fingerprint, whatever is required to unlock an encrypted file or hard drive so that they may inspect it when someone is crossing an international border into the US. If those cases affirm the gov’ts power to do so, that’s when it is truly time to start mourning our lost liberties, because it won’t be too far behind when they can do it to everyone, even in a local Starbucks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why is everyone so surprised by this? Custom agents have always had the right to read any document, file, book, blueprint or any other paper document so why is everyone so up in arms about customs reading electronic documents? You people act like the medium you choose to carry information on should be treated differently. You carry photos of naked children in your wallet you get busted but if you have jpegs of the same thing on your computer you can cross the border without worry? There’s nothing new going on here that hasn’t been going on for friggin’ decades.

What is at stake here isn’t customs arbitrarily reading everyone’s computer files. They could care less about your pirated movies and music. Customs needed a clear court ruling so that any suspected criminal/terrorist/general dumbass can’t claim their computer files are self-incriminating and thus protected by the fifth amendment.

Sheesh, get a grip.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I understand your point on this, but the fact remains that the privilege is being abused by customs agents who are confiscating and searching these devices without any due cause. IMHO, they should be bound by the same rules as police officers in this country, which means they need a warrant or due cause to start such a search.

Again, we’re not talking about bombs inside of laptop casings here. We’re talking about the equivalent of books and various forms of documentation. There should be a reason they have to search through your data. It’s almost to the point of being a witch hunt, like they’re just trying to find some excuse to take our rights away.

The problem really starts to become evident with reports of these devices being confiscated and never returned, again without due cause. Either our rules regarding the proper conduct of our customs agents are not strict enough, or we have corrupt agents who are not following said rules.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Why is everyone so surprised by this? Custom agents have always had the right to read any document, file, book, blueprint or any other paper document so why is everyone so up in arms about customs reading electronic documents?

It’s rather simple (or so I thought). If you’re carrying documents, files, books or blueprints on you, you chose to take them *specifically* with you on the trip.

That’s not the case with files on your computer, which have likely accumulated over time.

If you were travelling internationally, there are lots of documents you wouldn’t take with you, but stuff on your computer it’s the opposite. You have to proactive chose to NOT take them.

That’s why it’s quite different.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yes, you do have to proactive to not take incriminating data on electronic media. But should the proactive protection of your data you bring across the border be the government’s responsibility? The fact is everything brought across an international border is subject to search and seizure without a warrant or even reasonable suspicion a crime is being committed. [Quite frankly, the gov’t can put a scope right up your ass should the choose to do so.] Nothing has changed. How you choose to store your data shouldn’t exempt you from the same search and seizure rules every other media is subject to.

Your argument that having accumulated a large amount of data over time on electronic media should exempt you from the search and seizure rules is faulty. The correct argument is either all data, regardless of size and media, is subject to search or none of it is. Quantity and media choice should not be a factor in determining the government’s right to inspect.

Rekrul says:

It’s like all of you are more concerned with how to get around the problem instead of seeing that the problem is,

Everyone sees what the problem is. What do you expect people to do about it? Write to the politicians? Yeah, that’s going to carry a lot of weight when they’rew being accused of supporting terrorism and not being patriotic for opposing something that the white tells them is absolutely vital for keeping America safe. Organizations like the ACLU are already protesting this and look how much luck they’re having.

To add to the growing list of suggestions, how about unplugging the cable to the hard drive? When they turn it on, they’ll get the BIOS screen and nothing else. You can then accuse the customs agent of having broken it.

Rose M. Welch says:

There are How-To's because...

…the only resort left to most of us is to ignore the law and do as we see fit. I have yet to see, in my lifetime, a body of politicians that actually try to shape the law into anything close to what their constituents would want. It seems to be all about getting what they can for themselves while the getting is good.

And unfortunately, until everyone my grandparent’s age dies, that is all we will be able to do. Most of these people have antiquated ideas that don’t easily apply to new technology (or to old technology in alot of cases) and they are a huge voter base. So we just have to wait until we can change the world.

Anonymous Coward says:

Interesting stuff, but it doesn’t stop with customs. Cnet has a report today that congress is considering allowing the goverment to monitor everything you do on the net:

In response to questions from Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, Mueller said his proposed legislation “balances on one hand the privacy rights of people receiving information with…the necessity of having some omnibus search capability, utilizing filters that would identify illegal activity as it goes through, and allow us the ability to catch it at a choke point.”

Issa suggested he would support such legislation.

If Mueller’s omnibus-monitoring proposal became law, it could implicate the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. In general, courts have ruled that police need search warrants to obtain the content of communication, and the federal Wiretap Act created “super warrant” wiretap orders that require additional steps and judicial oversight.

John (profile) says:

Can't compare this to searching books

Sure, the government may have the right to open your book or magazine to “make sure” (make sure of what? who knows).

But, your laptop is much more personal. Suppose your laptop is your main computer (you don’t have a desktop) and you also use it for work. What might be on it? Your personal finances (Quicken and QuickBooks), confidential files relating to your business (designs, sketches, contracts with other people, etc).

What happens when some government agency “looses” your laptop with ALL of the personal information stored in Quicken? Bank information, bank access codes, password, credit card information, SSN, addresses, etc.
And QuickBooks could contain all of this information for the employees on your payroll.
Granted, the possible identity theft isn’t that great, but why even take the chance?

Why can’t we go back to the system we had back in 2000 where the TSA agents asked you to turn on your computer to prove it wasn’t a bomb? What is the *need* to look through people’s files? Like so many posters said, does the government really think they’ll catch the next terrorist because he has a file called “way_to_blow_up_buildings.doc”? It’s 2008: the would-be terrorist doesn’t need a Word file when there are a gazillion *websites* out there.
Or is that the next plan? Browse the web on people’s laptops when they cross the border?

BTR1701 (profile) says:


> Why can’t we go back to the system we had back
> in 2000 where the TSA agents asked you to turn
> on your computer to prove it wasn’t a bomb?

The silly thing about that is that it *doesn’t* prove the laptop isn’t a bomb. It’s not all that hard to construct a laptop that will show a basic startup screen when powered up while also containing a pound or two of explosives.

A chicken passeth by says:

Except that the files in anyone’s laptop, incriminating or not, don’t:
1. Hijack aircraft
2. Cause aircraft to explode in midair
3. Otherwise cause any other disaster to the aircraft while in flight.

Therefore, customs doesn’t just have no business searching laptops for “incriminating evidence”. It will be wasting its time (as well as everyone else’s) when it does.

(The physical laptop itself may be a different matter, but we have security in place for *that* already.)

Crazy Coyote says:

not just the border

Customs has jurisdiction within 100 miles to the south and north of the Canadian border. My friend got busted for smuggling. He was never in Canada. He was transporting 2 cases of beer and a bottle of Jack between New Hampshire and Maine. He didn’t have a tax stamp. I got stopped because the woman in my car appeared to be a minor and I was never in Canada.

unanymous says:

The issue isn’t just national security. There’s a lot of cases of people having child pornography on their laptops. The right to search electronic devices is also a way to search for THOSE criminals possesing child porn. I think its a good attempt of the government to put efforts toward the restriction of child exploitation. However, searching laptops is equivalent to searching people’s homes (without a search warrant)and in the process, possibly discovering criminal activity. The root of the problems must be addressed at the heart of man, between man and God. I applaud the government for trying to find the “dumb” criminals who do leave incriminating evidence in an obvious place on their laptop , but I don’t think its going to work. Peoples hearts have to change first. Until values and morals increase, there will be a way around government efforts. Anyways, if there’s nothing to hide, what’s the big concern amongst you innocent folks? That’s the way I see it. Let your laptop be searched five minutes. If you’re innocent, be on your way. If the government finds a looney in the process, good for them.

Anonymous Coward (user link) says:

New Internation Law called ACTA

There is a new international law going to start being enforced soon at borders and it says basically if you have anything illegal or can not prove purchase then your laptop is suspect and subject confiscation without due process.

Items of interest:
Movies (any movie now – not just child porn)
Encrypted hard drive
Encrypted File(s)

New devices to be searched:
Cell Phones
Portable Music devices
Portable Memory Drive

It goes on to indicate you must have proof of purchase or be carrying the original. Failure to be able to show proof of purchase within a reasonable amount of time (to prevent a delay to others entering the country) will get your laptop confiscated and you go on your way or if blatant violation of the law is detected then you get arrested. You will be required to provide the encryption key on encrypted files or you are violating this new “international” law.

American border agents, Marshalls, Interpol, and airport security will be required to increase their searches also. They will get a huge source of funding from the Recording and the Movie industry if this goes through.

We will lose the ability to prove innocence before we are found guilty of this law. And once confiscated you can not challenge the law in court as it in an International law and you can not get back your property.

This is happening now at the G8 Summit. And the US Congress which is currently controlled by the Democrats have already put their support behind it.

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