PSA: Your laptop is NOT secure at US customs.

David Liu April 12, 2011 0

Should the 4th amendment–protection against unwarranted search and seizure–apply to digital property? The Ninth Circuit seems to think not. It has recently ruled to uphold the right of the US government to seize any personal digital device coming into the US and hold it for up to 48 hours at a remote location without suspicion. Specifically, it stated: "reasonable suspicion is not needed for customs officials to search a laptop or other personal electronic storage devices at the border.” (Full text of the statement can be found here.) So, essentially, if you enter the United States–for example, returning from an overseas vacation–customs officials can take your laptop, smartphone, hard drives, iPod, or any number of other devices without reason.

In addition, this decision reaffirms the right of the government to mirror any data stored on your devices for future access. So while your device might (eventually) be returned to you, all of your personal files might be held in a government server. This is a problem for those who work with sensitive documents–lawyers with clients' personal information, businessmen with corporate secrets. In fact, for the sake of clients' privacy, some lawyers have taken to mailing hard drives back into the US rather than risk seizure at the border.

"But why should I care?" you ask, "I don't have anything incriminating, and besides, the chance of customs taking my laptop is minimal." True. If you don't keep any child porn or terrorist secrets on your hard drive, you probably have nothing to worry about even if your laptop does get confiscated, which has a very small chance of happening at all. But the issue isn't simply the security of our gadgets or even personal privacy: it is the fact that a United States court has deliberately and explicitly passed a ruling that flied in the face of the Constitution. It violates the basic principles on which said court should operate. It lessens the significance of the Bill of Rights as a whole, because it effectively states that our so-called unalienable rights can be taken away on a whim. Imagine, for a moment, if the police could knock on your door, kick you out of your house for two days, and photocopy all of your personal documents–credit card statements, bank statements, passports, deeds, etc. That is essentially what is being permitted in the digital world.

So what can you do right now to keep your information secure? Encrypt your hard drive. A simple password-protected file won't stop an experienced government tech from accessing it. Encryption, on the other hand, offers protection because it makes your data appear "scrambled" without a password. That password should be strong, too–a normal desktop computer has the processing power to crack an 8-character, letters-and-numbers password almost instantly, so throw in some symbols and make it longer. The best and most popular encryption solution now is TrueCrypt. So if you plan on leaving (and re-entering) the country any time soon, be sure to keep your data safe.

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