As reported by By Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post Staff Writer, on
Friday, August 1, 2008, Federal agents may take a traveler's laptop
computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an
unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part
of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently
disclosed. An increasing number of international travelers have
reported that their laptops, cellphones and other digital devices had
been taken -- for months, in at least one case -- and their contents
Personally, I'd be pretty bent out of shape if Homeland Security took
my laptop the next time I came through customs. But apparently this is
happening with increasing frequency and with no explanation and no
requirement that it be returned in any reasonable period of time.
Putting civil liberties and privacy issues aside, I've got a lot of
valuable stuff on my laptop that I need for my business, not to mention
family pictures and all the music I love to listen to while traveling.
Plus, I'd have to go out and get a new laptop because I couldn't be
sure when I'd be getting the other one back – that would set me back
$1500, not including the software that I've purchased.
So a word of caution for anyone traveling outside the US – back up your
PC online. If you have Carbonite and you open your laptop in the Hong
Kong airport, Carbonite will automatically back up the work you've been
doing while you're on the road. At least then you can be back in
business quickly if your computer gets taken by our government on your
And if you're really worried about the privacy of your files, encrypt
them on your laptop (I wonder if they can force you to give them the
key?) and when signing up for Carbonite, choose to keep your own
encryption key. That way, if they come to us with a court order, all
we'll be able to turn over are your encrypted files. With the kind of
encryption we use, these would be pretty useless without a huge effort.
(But, if you choose to manage your own key, don't lose it, because
there's no way to get your files back without it.)
Me personally, I'm going to write to my representatives. I don't like
the idea that the government can go on a fishing expedition on a US
citizen without probable cause. It's chilling!