March 6, 2008

"Should You Leave Your Laptop at Home When Traveling Abroad?: The Fourth Amendment and Border Searches of Laptop Computers."

So, to translate that question for me: Should you travel abroad?

17 comments:

rhhardin said...

There's nothing special about laptops. Any storage medium ought to be seized if they seize laptops ; and then it's easy to send anything over the border in any case in the internet, without any physical border-crossing device whatsoever.

So you could argue it's an empty gesture, falling into the roust category, that is, the making of a huge public inconvenience for your own reasons.

``As you can see, we are in charge here.''

Richard Fagin said...

I thought essentially all searches and seizures at a point of entry into the United States were presumtively reasonable for fourth amendment purposes.

Whether one should travel abroad depends on whether that person's value on privacy exceeds his need or want to travel abroad. You're subject to strip seach when you come home. Deal with it.

Balfegor said...

They can search your laptop, but my understanding (perhaps incorrect) is that they cannot make you cough up your passwords. So the obvious solution would be to encrypt anything you'd prefer inspectors not to see. Professionals who travel abroad do this (or have it done for them by their organization's IT department) on a regular basis. Although they may not be aware that their harddrive has been encrypted. I would guess it is better to encrypt only a portion of the harddrive, rather than the entire thing, so that it is possible to log on and confirm, e.g. that the computer is a functioning computer (I recall being asked to turn a device on once to verify as much), without running up against a password demand, but that's just my layman's view.

Smilin' Jack said...

Should You Leave Your Laptop at Home When Traveling Abroad?

That question makes no sense--the whole point of the internet is that if you have a computer you never have to leave your house, much less the country. That's why it's called the World-Wide-Web. Duh!

Foreign countries are crap, anyway--yeah, some of them have some interesting wildlife and geologic formations and whatnot, but they're chock full of grubby little pests who can't even speak English and are always in the way.

bill said...

rhhardin said...
There's nothing special about laptops. Any storage medium ought to be seized if they seize laptops ;


Exactly. The largest iPod is now 160GB. Still bigger than most laptops.

In Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, a group attempts to create a data haven that would be free of governmental interference. A few years ago, during a Slashdot interview, he was asked "Should there BE a data haven?" and he responded:
At this point, that is probably a technical question that I might not be competent to answer. I can carry a gig of encrypted data on a thumb drive now, and it doesn't cost much. Soon it'll be smaller and cheaper. Millions of people in different countries carrying gigs of data on thumb drives, iPods, cellphones, etc. make for a pretty robust distributed data storage system. It is difficult to imagine how one could build a centralized, hardened facility that would be more robust than that. But perhaps there's some technical or regulatory angle that I'm failing to appreciate here. I have not kept up to speed on this since Cryptonomicon.

I think we're seeing a reason not to carry everything with us. Even if you encrypt everything, they might decide to hold on it and good luck getting it back. Perhaps the data haven isn't such an outdated idea. Maybe keep your data in a secure, encrypted location and then access it from anywhere. Just use a stripped down laptop that never stores anything that is unencrypted and erase all local memory every time you shut down.

Revenant said...

If there's something you don't want the government to see, just encrypt it, upload it to a secure server, then download it again when you get across the border. There's no reason to have sensitive data actually ON the laptop at the point where you're crossing the border.

Of course, that means that border laptop checks only catch the really stupid criminals.

Middle Class Guy said...

I'll bet FARC and Hugo Chavez wished that the terrorists who were killed in Ecquador had left their lap top at home. Seems the Colombians have found some real interesting stuff on it.

john said...

What about the guy at the Canadian POE who admitted he had pictures of Gay Boys in Bondage or some such stuff on his laptop, but would not give his password? I guess they impounded his computer but I dont know his legal situation right now.

My opinion is that 1) he has real rights against self incrimination and illegal search and seizure, and 2) most people think he is no better than a pedarest or pedophile and should fry for having this stuff. His legal rights be damned.

Eli Blake said...

The whole premise of the question is that it is OK for them to search your computer even if they are without any reason to believe that you are engaged in any kind of terrorist or criminal activity.

If they attempted to search mine, I'd demand to know on what grounds I was under suspicion, and of what crime, and if I could see the proper documentation authorizing a search in the absence of any evidence of such activity, and if they could produce none, I'd take them to court and sue over it.

I might lose, given the broad laws and interpretation of laws governing this sort of thing that have been passed by the Bush administration, but fundamentally, that's what I'd feel I SHOULD do.

There is something intrinsically wrong, and very KGB-like about the idea of searches conducted on a whim, with no actual cause to justify such a search.

Kirk Parker said...

Eli,

You almost certainly would lose, but no thanks to Bush: border crossings have been considered searchable events for probably longer than Bush's lifetime.

Balfegor said...

I might lose, given the broad laws and interpretation of laws governing this sort of thing that have been passed by the Bush administration, but fundamentally, that's what I'd feel I SHOULD do.

The legal precedents involved here have nothing to do with the Bush administration. I forget the exact cases, now, but when I was cramming for the bar, the cases saying border agents in some kind of "border zone" could stop a man's car and disassemble it down to its component screws looking for drugs because he looked at them crosseyed were all from the 70's or so.

Googling a bit, I find that they seem to be from the 70s and 80s, with the car disassembly case (Supreme Court held unanimously that border agents don't need "reasonable suspicion" to take apart the car at the border) coming in 2004. And that my hyperbolic "disassembly of the car" language is not an accurate recollection of the facts (it was just 15-20 minutes, just the gas tank, and didn't damage anything). Anyhow, that was under Bush II. But I don't think it's a reflection particularly of any Bush policy in particular.

Balfegor said...

But I don't think it's a reflection particularly of any Bush policy in particular.

I ought to learn to read my posts before I post them. Blast!

Revenant said...

and if they could produce none, I'd take them to court and sue over it.

Their response would probably be "good luck filing that court case, since we're not letting you back into the country until you consent to the search".

The Fourth Amendment protects only against *unreasonable* searches. My understanding is that the reasonableness of a search is based on common law and precedent. I'm pretty sure that common law has recognized, since long before the United States even existed, a legitimate and reasonable government right to search people and things entering the country, even if there is no specific reason to suspect individual wrongdoing.

Simon or Ann could give a more informated response, I'm sure.

Michael_H said...

I always leave my laptop at home when traveling with a broad.

Pogo said...

Might be fun to load up a crappy old laptop with all sorts of angry viruses and trojan horses just before heading over to the airport.

Not at all, officer, please. You have my permission to search the hard drive.

Cedarford said...

Eli Blake said...
The whole premise of the question is that it is OK for them to search your computer even if they are without any reason to believe that you are engaged in any kind of terrorist or criminal activity.

If they attempted to search mine, I'd demand to know on what grounds I was under suspicion, and of what crime, and if I could see the proper documentation authorizing a search in the absence of any evidence of such activity, and if they could produce none, I'd take them to court and sue over it.


1. They would laugh at you because customs inspections and customs revenue from declarations or what is found in a reasonable search is not only a resonable exception but implicitly permitted in another section of the Constitution.

2. If you refused any search of your belongings and body after you refused to let them examine your laptop, suing them to get your laptop through would be the least of your problems. You would be locked up, laptop seized, and Customs going to court to get a warrant to search your house on grounds your behavior at Customs aroused reasonable suspicion.

3. Your laptop is no more privileged than your right not to be strip-searched at Customs - which they will do if they find doing so is reasonable and within US Statutes. A laptop is no more than any other info container - paper notes, a CD, a cassette tape, a VCR, a iPod, film..all can be looked at.

4. And if you are a foreigner arriving refusing search, they can detain you or turn you right around and deport you as "refused admittance".

paul a'barge said...

not until the dollar climbs back up from its plunge.