More power for the government to search your laptop at the border

For years, border protection agents have been permitted to inspect and/or seize your laptop, smartphone or other data storage device.

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)

A week at the Dulles customs area – cocaine, porn and $35,000

Traveling often sucks – but a sure way to make the end of your trip even worse, is to get one of those cryptic red messages scribbled all over your customs form when you pass through the immigration line.

I’ve been selected for a closer look at my belongings about 20 times, and it can be a massive pain in the backside.

Customs officials usually go through every single item in my bags, going so far as to turn on my laptop and take it to a small room where I’m guessing a forensics specialist is looking for dirty photos.

Still, I’ve never had anything to hide, so other than a major inconvenience, it isn’t really the end of the world.

That said – after reading a Customs and Border Protection press release about “a week in the life of Dulles Airport”, I’ve got a lot more understanding and respect for what the CBP does.
Here are some of the highlights of just one week:

  • Dagoberto Giraldo Perez was arrested on an outstanding DEA warrant for importing 11 pounds (or more) of cocaine into the US.
  • A Japanese traveler tried to enter the US with child porn DVDs, and another passenger arriving from Peru was carrying an insane 66 bestiality DVDs
  • A lady arriving on a flight from London landed at Dulles with $35,000 in US currency, but refused to declare it, despite repeated requests. She left the airport with $300 and will have to plead her case in a petition to claim the rest of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with carrying that much cash, but you do need to declare anything over $10,000.
  • 8 passengers were turned over to the local police on outstanding arrest warrants, mainly involving charges of theft, fraud and insufficient funds.
  • The “dumbest passenger of the week” at the customs desk was a passenger from Vietnam who failed to declare 6 pork sausages. The CBP agriculture specialists gave the man numerous opportunities to amend his customs declaration form, but he decided it would be more fun to just keep lying. He was fined $175.

Then of course, there are the usual passengers who lied on their customs forms and tried to hide items like sausages, Absinthe and Cuban cigars in their luggage. Customs agents even seized 2 bottles of vodka from a minor arriving from Germany

So there you have it – the results from just one airport, during one week.

What surprised me most, was how many passengers simply fail to understand what they are up against. It takes a very special kind of stupid to prefer lying about the items right in front of you and and being fined, than simply amending your declaration.

The US Customs and Border Protection agency has a site dedicated to educating you about the various rules and regulations regarding items you can (and can not) bring back to the country. Many of those rules are pretty straightforward, but the most important thing to remember is to not be an ass at the customs desk and to remember that lying to the agent is probably not in your best interests.

Check out these other stories from the airport checkpoint!

So, what exactly is in your Homeland Security travel file?

Back in 2007, Jamie wrote an article outlining how to request getting your hands on your Homeland Security travel file.

Based on the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), anyone is allowed to request that federal agencies hand over the information they keep on file about you. There are of course a couple of exceptions, but your Homeland Security travel dossier is not one of them.

Of course, just outlining how to get this information is not that interesting, actually seeing one of these dossiers is the really good stuff.

Newsweek reporter Sean O’Neill put in his request, and received a large Homeland Security envelope with 20 photocopies containing his dossier.

So, what exactly is in the file? There is of course the usual stuff about where you went, and when you got back. The file listed all his ports of entry, as well as his passport information and various other pieces of data.

The bit that surprised me, was how much information was on file about how he paid for his tickets. Not only does the airline send the government your payment method, they even send the IP address of the computer used to make that purchase as well as any IP address assigned to a computer that was used for other things, like a seat assignment change.

Of course, none of this information is all that sensitive, but it’s obvious that the government is collecting a massive amount of information on every single traveler in the country. On the one hand, it’s a minor invasion of privacy, but on the other hand, if the government puts this information to good use, and masters the art of data mining, they may be able to halt the bad guys before they make it to the airport.

Either way, it’s a very interesting read, and it may prompt you to ask the government for access to your own file, or perhaps it’ll just remind you not to use Al Qaeda computers to pay for your next ticket.