US Border Laptop Searches

This week in the US many news outlets are reporting a story that relates to how private the data on your computer, hard drive or mobile phone may be when passing national borders.

In a legal ruling a judge has in effect supported immigration officials’ rights to look inside your computer if you want to bring it in to the USA. The court ruling relates to an incident in 2010 when Pascal Abidor, a student crossing from Canada, had his laptop confiscated and searched.

A Laptop Search

A Laptop Search

The student claimed that this was unconstitutional as the 4th amendment states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated….” The US has long held however that this amendment cannot be upheld when dealing with people entering the country.

The judge ruled however that “The agents certainly had reasonable suspicion supporting further inspection of Abidor’s electronic devices”. What is not widely reported is the circumstances that lead to this decision. Abidor has both French and US passports, and upon entering he chose to show the passport that did not contain Visas that demonstrated that he had visited Lebanon and Jordan,  giving officials the impression that he was trying to hide something.

Agents spent five hours searching his laptop and USB drives, and then demanded that he write down his passwords and hand over the laptop and storage media. The laptop was returned by post 11 days later.

There are rules about what the authorities must do with data seized in these cases. All data that is deemed innocent must be destroyed within 7 days of seizure unless permission is given to keep it for longer. Many blogs however cast doubt upon whether an unregulated and poorly reported system can actually enforce this however, an online search of the story gives many different perspectives. The Homeland securities News Wire has one of the most informative.

I presume that like me many of you keep a great deal of personal data on your laptops, from tax returns, bank details, love letters and personal photos, and all of these things may be accessed in a case like this. One issue that has come to the fore has been brought by researchers and reporters, who may not be able to reveal sources of information for ethical, security or legal reasons, but may unwittingly do so by leaving evidence of their informers’ identities on their computers.

The line is blurred here, as today smuggling must include information smuggling and authorities may need to search information media, but an individual must be aware that all information carried over an international border is open to search. This must have repercussions in terms of industrial as well as personal privacy.

5 thoughts on “US Border Laptop Searches

  1. Christopher Roberts

    A very interesting case. What would happen if the laptop was a Chromebook and all his information was in the cloud on a server, say in China. Do the immigration officers have the right to view his data then? The data in that case would be accessible within the country anyway.

    What if the laptop doesn’t have a password and uses face recognition technology (as many now do)? Can the officers force him to authenticate the login?

    Can you disagree and asked to be sent back to wherever you came from, and if so who pays for your trouble and expenses?

    I can completely understand the need for interrogation in certain cases, but it should be kept to a minimum and could it not be done before someone boards a flight, rather than when they are in a different country?

    • I don’t imagine that if you refuse to come in they will just let you go, it could be a sign of guilt after all, and the authorities do say that they keep these things to a minimum although what that actually means is unclear.
      As for the cloud question yes, they can search your cloud data. The cloud is no more personal and certainly no safer than any other form of storage. In the spate of ransom trojans that have recently taken over computers they have also taken possession of data held in the so called cloud. It is just on a bigger hard drive linked to your computer after all.
      As for the facial recognition question I am sure that the US government can get past any security systems that your computer contains, and I think recent history shows that. Security does not exist, the whole idea is just to make you feel better, not reality. Anyway can’t you do it just using a photo?

      • Christopher Roberts

        Great response. So the moral of the story is store important stuff in an overseas cloud, but don’t integrate it with your laptop/tablet, just login using your web browser. That should keep you a little safer!

        The thing is, if the cloud is in another territory, should they not ask that territory’s permission? After all, they are in control of those data servers and could manipulate or remove it.

  2. Logistically and cost wise it would be very difficult for border control to search more than a tiny number of hard disks. Regardless, it would be very disturbing if it happened to you.

    In Australia they can certainly check your media if they suspect that you have illegal (censorship wise) movies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *