Travelers' Laptops May Be Detained At Border

by Volker Weber

Federal agents may take a traveler's laptop or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed. ... The policies cover "any device capable of storing information in digital or analog form," including hard drives, flash drives, cell phones, iPods, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes. They also cover "all papers and other written documentation," including books, pamphlets and "written materials commonly referred to as 'pocket trash' or 'pocket litter.' "

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And let me guess a return ticket to home/gitmo if you dont hand out the encryption key.

So business execs will have to leave their laptop at home

Time to buy Citrix Stocks

Flemming Riis, 2008-08-01

hehe, i would probably move my working os (win xp) to a vmware clone, unmount & leave the hdd at home and dial in from an ubuntu live cd :)

Samuel Orsenne, 2008-08-01

... O'er the land of the freeeeeeeeee
and the home of the brave

Marc Beckersjuergen, 2008-08-01

Jesus... I would love to get stats on how often this happens. It is very easy to get yourself accidently on a "suspect list". Booking one way flights remotely online was known to cause a flag. Doing a few of them and falling under some very generic demographics could make you one laptop lighter...

I am visualising myself or Bill getting on stage at Lotusphere.... "well folks we had some good stuff to demo... but"

Paul Mooney, 2008-08-01

lol - Are you implying that you and Bill are not capable of "winging it"?

Devin Olson, 2008-08-01

So my paranoia over putting my presentation on the computer, a thumbdrive, and at least three online locations before I leave is looking to be an even smarter idea all the time. :)

Thomas "Duffbert" Duff, 2008-08-01

Time to start using online storages ;)

Mathias Ziolo, 2008-08-01

Time to stop visiting the US.

Oliver Regelmann, 2008-08-01

It's just pure nonsense. Of course they will find "violent jihadist materials as well as images of child pornography". It's just a matter of statistics. And now that they are able to seize your stuff at will, they will stop it. Since there is no other way to get data in and out of the country.

Next stop: cutting your head off. There is a lot of room for dangerous thoughts in there.

Volker Weber, 2008-08-01

I know of a european legal company who told their employees to clean their harddisk of any company data before entering the US. After that, the employees should use the VPN-connection to the company intranet to download all necessary data.

Welcome to the land of freedom ;)

Andy Brunner, 2008-08-01

There is nothing new about this story now, nor really anything new about the issue. US Customs officials have always had authority to detain anyone and their belongings without any more reason other than "I thought he was acting unusually". I was detained and searched in Dallas once merely for stating that my final destination was Boston, when my ticket showed that it was Dallas -- because I was tired after a very long day traveling, and momentarily forgot that I was staying overnight in Dallas and so my Boston ticket was separate and the Customs officer wasn't looking at it. This was back in 1991. This was all true before 9/11. I am no fan of Bush, but this was all true before he was President.

And it is not unique to the US. There are things that are 100% legal in my country that are illegal in some EU countries. And customs in those countries has the right to stop me and confiscate my possessions if I try to bring them in. Some of those things qualify just as much as "dangerous thoughts" as the things US Customs may be looking for.

Re "time to stop visiting the US", of course that is your right. But there are an awful lot of countries you should probably add to that list. Outside of the EU, you have very few rights at customs in any country. And I, as a US citizen, have fewer rights than you do if customs in any EU country decides to detain me and my belongings.

If you find any actual evidence that this is happening more often now than it used to, that people are being sent to Gitmo as a result of laptop searches at border crossings, that US Customs is stealing anyone's personal or business secrets, or that US citizens are at less risk entering your countries than you are when entering ours, please do bring it to our attention though. I would be happy to have additional legitimate reasons to complain about President Bush.

In the meantime, I suggest that we all be sensibly cautious about what we carry with us when crossing the border, and make no assumptions about our ability to exercise the rights we are used to either. And not just US borders. This applies to any border.

Richard Schwartz, 2008-08-01

Richard, since we are in the EU here, we are more accustomed to our border regime, and not that of North Korea and similar nations. Germany has had similar bureaucracies and they no longer exist, thankfully. The last one was the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit.

Volker Weber, 2008-08-01

Richard, thanks for another point of view. In fact, the US are full of very interesting places I'd love to visit as a tourist. I've been there yet and had a great time and surely would like to go again.

But from our side it looks like the US started to consider all visitors being enemies of the state. And there are new restrictions installed in the last years: asking for very personal data from every flight passenger, taking fingerprints at the border, now these obviously intensified* customs checks etc. All these things don't make me feel as a welcomed visitor.

*from the WP article: "an increasing number of international travelers have reported that their laptops, cellphones and other digital devices have been taken -- for months, in at least one case -- and their contents examined."

Oliver Regelmann, 2008-08-01

Volker, I understand that for travel within the EU you are used to a regime with a great deal of freedom, much like I am used to the fact that the Massachusetts police can't arbitrarily stop me when I cross the border from New Hampshire.

But are you telling me that I, a US citizen, can visit Germany at any time, and bring anything I want with me on my laptop, with no restrictions at all? Because that's not what it says here.

That site (which I am assuming is official) says that I would not be allowed to bring in pornography of certain types, some of which might be legal in the US (though possibly illegal for import into the US, because I believe that our Customs regulations can in fact be more strict than our internal laws).

It also says that I would not be allowed to bring in any "literature of unconstitutional content", and specifically "The introduction of literature, data media and the like the contents of which goad into racial hatred, call for violence or glorify wars, is prohibited as well. If in a control a breach of the Criminal Code is established, the literature shall be seized and forwarded to the competent prosecuting attorney for the institution of a criminal procedure." And even more so in this case, many things that Germany considers illegal and apparently will not allow me to import on my laptop, is perfectly legal here in the US.

Another page on that site says "As a rule, customs officers check travellers on a random basis without a specific initial suspicion." And farther down, it says "Occasionally it happens that articles are found during a customs inspection and it cannot be clarified immediately whether they are subject to prohibitions and restrictions or not... In such cases, the articles in question can be seized and submitted to a test by experts."

It says nothing specific about laptops, but in general I see no difference between that and the US Customs policies.

And, if I'm reading that site correctly, it says that these regulations apply to EU citizens, too.

Perhaps I'm wrong about all that. Perhaps I'm missing some fundamental aspect of German law that protects me and my laptop, but isn't reflected in the regulations that are published on the web site, and is stronger than the protections you would get when you enter the US. Perhaps I really can bring anything I want on my laptop into Germany with no risk at all, even though the regulations posted on the web site say that I can't. But somehow, I don't really think it would be wise for me to risk knowingly bringing in any of that "literature of unconstitutional content" on my laptop, though.

Richard Schwartz, 2008-08-01

As someone who is hitting every country recently, let me give some quick insight to a lot of the readings I have now done in press and on government publications.

The US has been building this policy for not only child pornography and terrorism, but also an agreement reached with the RIAA.

Canada has the same type policy and agreement now also where they may "decide" you have too much music that 'might' be copyrighted material yu did not buyt and may delete, copy or seize the device. Movies are a hug part of this agreement that was also reached. I never carry anything but a real DVD going in and out now.

Australia also introduced this recently, yet in that county you may copy your cd legally to the portable device (from my interpretation). They may also confiscate and delete what might be unlwfully copyrighted materials. So they have a conumdrum going on.

I have trimmed back what I carry, removed pretty much everything but podcasts and moved down to an 8gb ipod touch. I had 40gb worth of music from collections over the years and had no plan of them deleting or keeping that one.

Also, there is a slew of rules on providing passwords and encryption keys. Some say if it is password protected you do not have to give them the password, but they have the right to then keep and investigate the device. Encryption falls into the same category. But most evey one I have read now say you do not have to initially give up either the key or password. Just be prepared.

I recently (2 weeks) went back from Toronto, was randomly pulled for agriculture and saw the next step coming. They had just entered inot the RIAA stuff so I was asked about my devices. I showed my iPod and laptop. I had left my portable harddrive at home on purpose. The iPod he peeked at but saw the biometric scanner on the laptop and casually didnt go down that path.

Summary: Remotely stored data that you can access at will is becoming important. The virtual desktop is growing, mainly when they can share media, files and notes. I am playing with a couple of these. Carrying anyting on any flash device or harddrive is opening you to inspection at any country entry or exit point. Pack light.

Chris Miller, 2008-08-01

Oliver -- yes, we have tightened our Customs procedures, and I don't agree with all the ways they've done it -- including the fingerprints. That's just dumb. It's security theater, not true security.

But as far as "an increasing number international of travelers..." goes, 11 is greater than 10, and 101 is greater than 100, and therefore either case is an increase... and yet still a very small percentage of travelers entering the US. I don't know what the real number is, of course, and I don't know how the number of innocent people whose laptops are searched and seized compares to the number of people who are actually guilty of bringing in something that is in fact illegal to bring into the US. I also don't know how any of these number or percentages compare to the same numbers and percentage of travelers entering EU countries who go through similar ordeals. Do you? Does anyone? Now that would be a very interesting comparison. I wonder if anyone can get the numbers for a cross-section of countries. If the numbers really show that the US is disproportionately tougher or more arbitrary than other countries, then you'll get no further argument from me!

Richard Schwartz, 2008-08-01

Richard, there have been no reports of notebooks, ipods or portable drives being seized to scan their content. And I am pretty sure they would have been reported. There is a reason companies tell their employees to not carry data across the US border.

Since you mentioned Bush: I don't think he is responsible for this nonsense. He is only responsible for waging war. But that is a whole different story.

Volker Weber, 2008-08-01

Well, I agree there are good reasons not to carry data across the US border.

Or any border.

Richard Schwartz, 2008-08-01

BTW: I wish I could get my bosses to send me to DNUG. I could bring an old laptop that I don't care about, and put some "literature of unconstitutional content" on it to test my theory ;-)

Richard Schwartz, 2008-08-01

As Richard said, different countries have different rules/laws on what you can bring with you.
Here in the US, I can go to Best Buy or any other electronic store, even WalMart, and buy a radar/laser detector to use in my car to avoid speeding tickets. In Sweden, they are illegal to use, to own, or even to bring into the country.
When the porn star Traci Lords once visited Sweden for some (mainstream) movie premiere, she said she was shocked that the movies she performed in while underage were legal in Sweden (as well as in many other countries), while they all (with one exception according to Wikipedia) are illegal in the US and classified as child porn.

I don't think the US customs actually check very many laptops, but they need to be able to do it legally. AFAIK, in the US the rules for what the police can do and not do are more strict than in Sweden or Germany. Or rather, what is admissable in court.
Take this example: a police office stop you for speeding or a broken tail light. He asks you to open the trunk. There is a glove with blood on it. He arrests you, and it is later found that your wife is missing.
In the US, the glove can not be used in count, since teh search was illegal, the police had no right to perform the search based on the premises of the stop. In Germany(?) and Sweden, the glove could be used in court. The police officer might get a warning for the illegal search, though.
I am not saying one system is better than the other. I am just point out there may be a reason the customs need a way to legally search a suspects computer.

Karl-Henry Martinsson, 2008-08-01

hey need to be able to do it legally

Why do they need to be able to do that?

Volker Weber, 2008-08-01

actually Richard has a point in saying that Germany (just to name an example) is not better by far than the US in this respect - we have our own homeland security all rolled into one person here.

Still, having said that, there is no way to avoid pointing out that with these small steps all in the same direction we should be wary of where we are headed. Wasn´t it nine steps it takes to turn a country in a totalitarian-enabled state.

Even if the powers that be are not the ones to (ab-)use the possibilities in existence, the next one definitely could. What if the next president/chancellor/prime minister/whatever were an agressive paranoid schizo?

Should he have all the instruments at his fingertips already?

Armin Roth, 2008-08-01

Remember the novel "Catch-22"? The phrase has come to mean a lot of things, but in the end I quote the book:
"You have the right to protest, but there's a catch."
"Right. Catch-22 says they can do anything you can't stop them from doing."

Habeus Corpus law in the U.S. going back to before there was a U.S. Is inconvenient? No problem, just vote it away. "Democracy" in action.

Need to store prisoners outside the jurisdiction of a U.S. court (where they might grant inconvenient "rights" to said prisoner)? No problem, send them to Guantanamo. Or Bulgaria.

Torture illegal? No problem! Just redefine "torture"!

They CAN do ANYTHING you can't STOP them from doing.

Bob Balaban, 2008-08-02 i was wondering...all this talk made me a little bit ansious im planning to travel to the us some time soon...and i have an ipod touch with almost 10 gb of music... this means that if they check the ipod and consider some of the msuic to be illegal i might go to jail ??

emilio Pena, 2009-04-26

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