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Safeguard your laptop from intrusive U.S. border searches

Dec 21, 2011

laptop Safeguard your laptop from intrusive U.S. border searches

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has published “Defending Privacy at the U.S. Border: A Guide for Travelers Carrying Digital Devices.”

It has been established in court that there is no cause needed for a U.S. border agent to search a laptop. One of the highest profile laptop seizure cases involved Michael Arnold, who returned from the Philippines only to have his laptop searched by Customs, who searched a desktop folder labeled “Kodak Memories.” Inside were some nude photos. A case was later brought against Arnold alleging possession of and knowingly transporting child pornography. Arnold’s defense argued that Customs agents violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and siezure. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision that favored Arnold, and when Arnold had exhausted his appeals, he committed suicide.

Then there is the experience of hacker and security researcher Moxie Marlinspike, who was met by two Customs agents at his airplane when he arrived back from the Dominican Republic. Marlinspike’s laptop and two cellphones were seized. The agents asked for their passwords but Marlinspike refused. And though his laptop and phones were returned, he noted that he could no longer trust the integrity of his devices because the hardware might have been modified or altered with firmware.

Arnold’s experience and case is of course a cautionary tale for travelers, and any individual really, that they should protect and encrypt their laptop. The federal courts have essentially decided that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to border searches, thus it is up to the individual to protect his or her privacy.

So, what can we do to protect our laptops, which contain a great deal of our personal lives and information within circuitry and silicon chips?

The EFF’s ”Defending Privacy at the U.S. Border: A Guide for Travelers Carrying Digital Devices” provides travelers with critical information regarding laptop seizure, including tips for backing up data, password protecting the computer, full-disk encryption, and how to deal with a border agent who demands access to data (such as when one might ask for a password).

Read the full guide over at EFF.

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