The Government Can Seize Your Laptop

Yes, it’s true—the government can seize your laptop computer when you’re crossing the border, with or without suspicion of wrongdoing. Think about what happens to your luggage when you travel. First it is inspected, and then if you’re lucky you get to pass through security and proceed to your terminal. Otherwise, you’re singled out and customs officers take you and your luggage aside to personally sort through your belongings. The same thing can happen to your electronic devices—being randomly singled out for a special search—but in this instance your laptop or cell phone is taken away to an undisclosed location for an unknown period of time. You’re left alone, wondering where your hard drive—and its contents—are being toted off to. Is this legal? Absolutely. Is it right? That depends on who you ask.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security vs. Your Laptop

The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency responsible for keeping citizens safe from terrorism. The CBP published its policy regarding electronic devices being transported by individuals entering, reentering, departing, passing through, or residing in the U.S. This policy stated that CBP has the right to take your laptop (or any other electronics device such as cell phones, portable music players, hard drives, and DVDs) to an undisclosed off-site location for an unknown period of time. The CBP doesn’t have to find you suspicious or have a warrant to take your laptop. They don’t have to give you a reason why you were singled out. Federal agents are then allowed to sift through documents, photos, songs, and any private information stored on your laptop. They are allowed to make copies of any information, but if no probable cause exists to keep the device, all copies will be destroyed.

What’s the Deal?

According to CBP, this seizure process is both necessary and reasonable to prevent terrorism, drug smuggling, child pornography, embargo violations, and copyright or trademark violations. CBP has stated that they will “protect the rights of individuals against unreasonable search and seizure.” Some citizens disagree with the search-and-seizure process and claim it’s intrusive and unnecessary without probable cause.

How to Protect Yourself (And Your Information)

Having a piece of personal property taken from you is never fun, but you especially don’t want to get caught having your laptop seized if you’re on a business trip and you have important company information stored there. Once your laptop is seized, there is no guarantee when you’ll get it back and if everything is in its original place. Don’t make the mistake of doing nothing because you assume you’ll pass right through security untouched. As the saying goes, you’re better safe than sorry.

Encrypting your hard drive can hide some of your documents. Some encryption programs will even hide icons, but you run the risk that federal agents will only hold onto your laptop longer while they try to break your code. The best way to protect yourself is to delete everything you won’t immediately need. You don’t have to permanently delete these documents; simply store them on a flash drive, external hard drive, or another computer that won’t be crossing the border with you. Backing up and deleting files may be a pain, but it’s worth the peace of mind.

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