Declan McCullagh
CNet News
March 13, 2008

If you travel across national borders, it’s time to customs-proof your laptop.

Customs officials have been stepping up electronic searches of laptops at the border, where travelers enjoy little privacy and have no legal grounds to object. Laptops and other electronic devices can be seized without reason, their contents copied, and the hardware returned hours or even weeks later.

Executives have been told that they must hand over their laptop to be analyzed by border police–or be barred from boarding their flight. A report from a U.S.-based marijuana activist says U.S. border guards browsed through her laptop’s contents; British customs agents scan laptops for sexual material; so do their U.S. counterparts.

These procedures are entirely legal, according to court precedents so far. A U.S. federal appeals court has ruled that an in-depth analysis of a laptop’s hard drive using the EnCase forensics software "was permissible without probable cause or a warrant under the border search doctrine." One lawsuit is seeking to force the government to disclose what policies it follows.

The information security implications are worrisome. Sensitive business documents can be stored in computers; lawyers may have notes protected by the attorney-client privilege; and journalists may save notes about confidential sources. Regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and Gramm-Leach-Bliley may apply. A 2006 survey of business travelers showed that almost 90 percent of them didn’t know that customs officials can peruse the contents of laptops and confiscate them without giving a reason.

Fortunately, you have some technological defenses against overly snoopy border agents. Keep reading for our easy-to-understand, Homeland-Security-inspired, color-coded Guide to Customs-Proofing Your Laptop. (And no, we’re not responsible if you end up cooling your heels in some Burmese prison for using PGP; check local laws and use good judgment.)

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