Privacy & Security

What Will You Do When the Government Demands Your Laptop?

  • author Mark Nestmann
  • calendar November 27, 2006

Courtesy of a decision from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. Customs officials can seize and copy the contents of any laptop carried across a U.S. border.

There’s no arrest, warrant or probable cause required—just "gimme." If you’re a defense attorney, your most confidential client files may wind up in the hands of government prosecutors. 

If you’re a political opponent of the Bush administration, your correspondence and the names and addresses of everyone you’ve contacted can now be used against you to support a “terror” investigation. The ways that this new authority can be misused are too numerous to count—whatever information you carry with you on your laptop—banking records, client data, “adult” videos, you name it—now, in effect, must be shared with the U.S. government.

Customs officials need not have reasonable suspicion, much less probable cause, that you're guilty of something before conducting a laptop search. In contrast, "reasonable suspicion" is required before Customs agents can conduct a body cavity search, X-rays or other invasive examinations. What can you do to protect yourself? One suggestion is to encrypt all the data on your laptop, or even the hard disk itself, using a program like PGP Desktop (www.pgp.com).

Just hand the encrypted laptop to the Customs official, smile, and wait. Unfortunately, that may not be an ideal solution, because border officials are also demanding that travelers decrypt any information on their laptop before they’re permitted to cross the border.  And even if they don’t detain you, they just might hold on to the laptop and try to encrypt it themselves.

A better idea might be to use a program like Dropbox (www.dropbox.com) to make an online backup of your data.

Then securely "wipe" any confidential information off your hard drive, along with the "free space," again using a program like PGP Desktop. Alternatively you could copy everything on your hard drive to a USB stick and send it via a courier service to your international destination.  (Encrypt the data, of course, before you send it.) 

You could also send the entire laptop via a courier service, but that could be expensive and laptops are easily damaged in transit.  Plus, there’s no assurance that it wouldn’t be covertly inspected. If you carry your laptop through Customs, be sure to sanitize it.  The ideal solution would to encrypt and copy your data, send it to your destination and then use a utility like Killdisk (www.killdisk.com) to securely wipe everything on your hard drive. 

Then reinstall the operating system according to the instructions in Killdisk or whatever utility you use for this purpose. 

(There are other possible “sanitation” solutions but none as good as this one.) If Customs asks you to inspect your laptop, let them—they won’t find anything but the operating system and standard system files. Yes, it’s a hassle, but that’s what life has come to here in the "land of the free."

Copyright (c) 2006 by Mark Nestmann

(An earlier version of this post was published by The Sovereign Society,http://www.sovereignsociety.com)

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