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February 2009
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Can Airport Customs Seizure Of Your Laptop?

The question of specific U.S. Custom boundaries regarding the seizure or searching of cell phones, laptops and other digital equipment for potential links to crimes is a hot topic for travelers moving through international airports and other ports of entry.

More and more travelers are being scrutinized when navigating through U.S. Customs and Border Protection. U.S. Customs and Homeland Security have a job to do to protect the U.S. from potential harm, but where is the line drawn for the invasion of personal information stored on laptops, cell phones, blackberries or iPods? The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures but in these turbulent times, where are the boundaries as to what government has the right to search? There must be balance between freedom and protection.

Consider this situation, you return to the U.S. from traveling abroad and your laptop is seized by customs agents. After a short time, the agents return your laptop and you go on your merry way. Meanwhile, your entire content has been copied and is being searched for Burmese yoga sites, middle-eastern music and pornography. You have no idea this is happening and this is the big question that civil right groups are trying to get answered, what are the governing rules regarding what can be searched and what happens to the data that is viewed or copied.

For the first time, lawsuits regarding this very question are perking the interest of legislators. Multiple citizen rights groups have filed lawsuits in the U.S. district court in California citing the federal Freedom of Information Act. The advocacy groups are requiring the courts to mandate the disclosure of the rules and policies governing the inspections of electronics by border guards. The Department of Homeland Security and Customs Border Protection agencies are not divulging the processes for searching electronic devices. (Read their comments on laptop searches. ) According to the customs agency, all travelers entering the U.S. are required to participate in the processes as they are looking for possible threats such as terrorism or narcotics.

In this age electronics gadgets and devices, confidential company information or even an innocent hobby could render problematic as custom officials carry out searches and seizures. Careful who you call on your cell phone; all records of your contacts and phone calls could be copied and evaluated to links of illegal situations. Here's an example of a search that led to an alleged crime. A laptop of a computer consultant was seized by customs officials and in the course of the search, they found child pornography. A court found that the search was legal and child pornography charges were served. The jury in the case sided with the traveler who worked legitimately for a company that hunts down illegal pornography acts; and agreed that he stumbled on the child site by accident.

The above example is extreme; however, this question of personal freedom vs. questionable governmental search procedures is a looming problem. A spokes person for the Department of Homeland Security expressed that the concern is overblown. Even so, if you are a frequent international traveler, you may want to consider tips for traveling with digital equipment.

  • Back up your data before you leave home.
  • Carry equipment you can afford to loose.
  • Limit your laptop information with general no proprietary company information.
  • Be cautious that all your personal information would be okay for public display.