Do you think that data on your computer or laptop is private? Think again; especially if you travel to or from the United States.
The Power of
Big Brother Homeland Security
Big Brother a.k.a. the US Department of Homeland Security has deemed that if you are crossing the border, they can pretty much do whatever they wish with your electronic equipment and any data that you might have on it.
According to the washingtonpost.com, the Dept. or Homeland Security’s search policy allows laptops or other electronic devices to be brought to an “off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing”. The search policies also specify that copies of the device’s content may be shared with other agencies and private entities for translation, decryption or “other reasons”.
Now I’m not generally a paranoid person but the policies appear to give security agents some pretty big freedoms which could be ripe for abuse. Any person “without suspicion of wrongdoing” along with “private entities” for “other reasons” scare me.
Examples of abuse
For example, an executive of a company which is developing a revolutionary technology has his laptop seized at the border. The contents of the laptop are found to contain information related to a new product or process which could threaten a large American company. Under the search policies, it appears possible that border officials could share the data with the large American company (“a private entitity”) for assesment of the damage that this new product could have on the company (“other reasons”).
For example, the next time you enter the US with your laptop the border agent could seize and copy all of your photos, web browsing history (including any saved passwords), downloads, documents, financial and banking information and any logs of your activities. Now this may or may not contain information that you deem to be sensitive but I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable letting strangers having full access to my data with seemingly little oversight. Who knows perhaps they will send all of your email and IM conversations between yourself and your mistress to your wife back at home. After all that is a “private entity” and the information would be sent for “other reasons”.
How can you safeguard your data?
Besides the obvious tactic of avoid travel to or from the United States or not bringing any electronic accessories along with you through customs, there are other measures which one can take to protect the privacy of your data.
Encrypting your data is an option which can provide some security for your data. Many programs such as PGP, FileVault and TrueCrypt allow users to encrypt files or even whole hard drives which makes it very difficult for people to access data without the proper passwords. Disc encryption however is not completely safe. It is also true that officials might be able to force you to reveal your password although this is currently being challenged in court by Sebastien Boucher.
Travelling with “Blank devices”
In fact, the Toronto law firm Blaney McMurtry has a policy which requires all of its lawyers to travel with blank laptops. This is in response to concerns that border officials could confiscate their laptops and gain access to sensitive legal and client documents. They are also creating policies which would protect the data on their Blackberries as well.
CNet also has a useful guide to customs proofing your laptop.
UPDATE: It appears that some US lawmakers are considering imposing some limitations on unjustified electronic searches.