Friday, June 27, 2008

Hands off my laptop

As a regular traveler to the United States on business, and therefore always with my laptop, this article certainly gives me pause. I’ll certainly be thinking twice what files I have on my system before my next trip, and leaving a back-up of my critical files at home. The security provisions for traveling to the U.S. are getting increasingly ridiculous, but perhaps none more so that the take off your shoes rule, instituted only because some guy tried to make a shoe bomb. As one wit said, thank-god there wasn’t an underwear bomber…yet.

Returning from a brief vacation to Germany in February, Bill Hogan was selected for additional screening by customs officials at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. Agents searched Hogan's luggage and then popped an unexpected question: Was he carrying any digital media cards or drives in his pockets? "Then they told me that they were impounding my laptop," says Hogan, a freelance investigative reporter whose recent stories have ranged from the origins of the Iraq war to the impact of money in presidential politics.

Shaken by the encounter, Hogan says he left the airport and examined his bags, finding that the agents had also removed and inspected the memory card from his digital camera. "It was fortunate that I didn't use that machine for work or I would have had to call up all my sources and tell them that the government had just seized their information," he said. When customs offered to return the machine nearly two weeks later, Hogan told them to ship it to his lawyer.

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Mark Richard Francis said...

What a loophole! Government agencies using anti-terrorist search and seizure powers to investigate journalistic sources.

In the US, you know they'd do it.

Good to see you blogging some, Jeff.

Barcs said...

"anti-terrorist search and seizure powers"

You mean customs or security powers that every country institutes.

Customs like seizing fruits and veggies that you might have tried to bring in. Not to mention adding Duty taxes to anything you have bought.

And airport security measures. You know. Like nail clippers, or making you drink coffee or water etc. (or just throw it out) Remember reading about the girl that had to throw out $300 worth of makeup? (why she didn't go mail it is beyond me).

But I do agree with you Jeff. Security is a bit overboard. (Tho I do understand the paranoia of someone blowing up a car on a highway vs someone blowing up a plane or flying it into a building).

I don't know what grounds they seized his laptop on.... usually just powering it up for them is enough unless you triggered some other flag.

Unknown said...

They don't need a reason, Barcs, if reason = probable cause or even a plausible suspicion. All you need to do is look at them funny, or just sigh in exasperation when they demand you turn the laptop on. It's an intimidation thing, as far as I can tell. If they actually catch someone with child porn or maps of the New York subway saying "Place bombs here", that's a bonus, but it isn't the real objective.

BCer, cleaning your laptop of sensitive files is a good idea, but I'd go one step further: wipe off any music, movies, downloaded TV shows, e-books... hell, anything that's copyrighted and may at some time in the past have had a digital lock on it. Unless you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you own it, and why would you want to carry a packet of receipts with you? (And if you did, they might decide you really had something to hide.)

Ditto for any software you might not have, ah, paid full price for, and any DRM-breaking tools.

Border cops are going to become copyright cops before long, especially if Bill C-61 passes in its current form. Best start acting as if the worst will happen, and clean your laptop with the same care you clean the roach residue out of your car ashtray before you drive across the border.