– says Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano justifying why the Obama administration largely upheld the Bush-era regulations about intrusive border searches of travelers’ laptops, cellphones and other electronic devices.
I’ve heard that reasoning before. No, actually I did not just hear, but live it. Having grown up behind the Iron Curtain (albeit in the most liberal country of the camp), international border crossing was a painful, sometimes fearful event. We had no laptops, or any form of electronic media back then (the 80’s), but the armed customs agents searched through bags, and if you brought any form of printed material from the “West”, it likely got confiscated.
I will always remember one trip when we had some reason to worry on the way out: I was part of a small student group traveling to an AIESEC International Congress carrying data we needed for the student exchange program. The preferred format was electronic (which meant floppy disks at the time) but the bureaucrats who authorized our trip (yes, we needed exit visas) only approved paper forms. Of course we carried disks – wrapped, insulated, inserted into two sandwiches.. hey, hungry students need a lot of food for the long train ride, we just had to remember which sandwich not to bite into
It was the 80’s, then-communist (sort of) Hungary. Fast-forwards 25 years, and in 2009 US customs agents not only have the right to examine your electronic devices, they can copy all information or even confiscate the device, without any suspicion of wrongdoing. Welcome to 1984 again.
Who will these measures hurt? If two kids could trick the commie authorities back in the 80’s, would terrorists or any organization willing to harm us be a lot more sophisticated about sending electronic information? Information cannot be stopped, innocent or harmful. These intrusive steps continue to hurt (business) travelers, and their very existence will do no good to America’s already shattered image abroad.
How can international travelers protect their information? Encryption is one approach, but remember, you can find yourself in a rather complicated legal situation if US authorities try to force you give up your passwords (encryption keys). And just the inconvenience of not having your laptop or cellphone with you is enough, if the authorities decide to detain it for further examination.
Since this is all about inbound traffic and broadband access in the US is fairly good, the best option may very well be considering your laptop just an access device, and leave all your data in the cloud. Access it online anywhere you want without US Custom’s peeking eyes. Perhaps those Netbooks are not a bad idea, after all?
Update: Dan has more thoughts here.
- Bush’s Search Policy For Travelers Is Kept
- Laptop Searches to Continue, Though Officials Pledge More Transparency
- Laptop border searches to continue
- The Digital Lawyer Crosses the Border
- Lawyers should leave their laptops at home when traveling abroad