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5 things you need to know about laptop searches at U.S. borders

Be prepared if a customs official seizes your PC at the airport

February 12, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A lawsuit filed last week over warrantless searches of laptops and other electronic devices at U.S. borders highlights an issue that all travelers, U.S. citizens and others, need to be aware of when entering the country, according to the executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE).

The suit was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Asian Law Caucus, two California-based civil rights groups. It asks the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to disclose information on its policies for inspecting the contents of laptops and other electronic devices at the country's ports of entry.

The lawsuit was prompted by what the two groups contended were the growing number of reports they were receiving from travelers who claimed to have been subjected to such searches. In most instances, the searches were conducted without apparent reason and with no details offered on what information might have been viewed or downloaded by customs officials, the suit alleged.

Susan Gurley, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based ACTE, said that international travelers need to be aware of and prepared for such border searches, even though they are relatively rare. This is especially true because so far little is known about the DHS's policies relating to the practice and what it does with the information collected during searches of electronic devices, she said.

"This is by far not an epidemic of any sort," Gurley said. "But we think people should know that they basically are leaving their right to privacy at the door when they cross the U.S. border. There is no assumption of privacy," at a port of entry, she said. Here are five factors Gurley says travelers should know about:

1. No evidence needed to take your laptop

Border agents do not need any evidence or suspicion of illegal activity to examine a laptop or other electronic device.

Every time you cross the border, customs officials have the right to look at anything in your possession, including the content on your laptop, handheld device, cell phone, USB memory stick and digital cameras, Gurley said. They have the right to both view that information and to download or mirror it if they think it's necessary, she said.

2. Anything can be searched

Everything on an electronic device is open to search. This includes personal photographs, personal banking, any business documents and stored or unopened e-mail, Gurley said.

We think people should know that they basically are leaving their right to privacy at the door when they cross the U.S. border. There is no assumption of privacy [at a port of entry].
Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives


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