Under new legislation introduced today, those rules grant even more power, while trying to give the appearance of increased privacy for the owner of the data.
Previously, it didn’t really matter what you had on your computer – anything was allowed to be inspected. This obviously meant that legal documents, medical records and even classified business documents could be inspected, without you being allowed to do anything about it.
With these new rules, border agents can search all the “business documents” they want, but need to contact their own counsel when they encounter legal or other sensitive files.
One other new addition to the rules is that agents are now allowed to inspect the contents of your computer when you arrive and when you leave the country.
What this means to the common traveler? Well, unless you are carrying child porn or anything else illegal, you have nothing to worry about.
If you are carrying business documents that under no circumstances can be leaked, don’t keep them on your laptop – encrypt them and send them by email or any other secure online service.
The rules for inspecting business documents state that the inspector can view the files, but that he needs to keep them a secret, you be the judge of whether you can trust them enough with your information.
If you are an attorney with documents you can’t permit getting out in the open, be prepared for a battle, especially if you are stopped at the border and are suspected of being a criminal or terrorist.
Encrypting your files is one way to keep them away from prying eyes, just don’t expect to walk away with your laptop without showing the inspector the contents of the encrypted file. If you refuse to cooperate, they’ll just keep your laptop and send it off to specialists who may be able to break whatever encryption you are using.
The Department of Homeland Security has released three documents outlining the new rules, and they are a really interesting read (if you like reading boring legalese that is).
CBP Border Search of Electronic Devices Containing Information (PDF, 10 pages)
ICE Border Searches of Electronic Media (PDF, 10 pages)
Privacy Impact Assessment: Border Searches of Electronic Information (PDF, 51 pages)