Government Says No Privacy Rights in Laptop Hard Drives at the Border

Adam Liptak has an article in today's New York Times, If Your Hard Drive Could Testify, about court fights over whether the Government can inspect the contents of your laptop's hard drive when coming into the country.

The government contends that it is perfectly free to inspect every laptop that enters the country, whether or not there is anything suspicious about the computer or its owner. Rummaging through a computer’s hard drive, the government says, is no different than looking through a suitcase. One federal appeals court has agreed, and a second seems ready to follow suit.

It might be time to leave the laptop at home if it's not essential to your overseas trip. Or ship it home via federal express and bring a dvd player instead to watch movies on the long flight.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Encryption (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by Andreas on Mon Jan 07, 2008 at 02:55:34 PM EST
    What happens if the content is encrypted?

    Invulnerable To Search (none / 0) (#9)
    by squeaky on Mon Jan 07, 2008 at 09:32:01 PM EST
    With PGP no one would be able to get into your computer unless you gave them the code. The courts just ruled that they cannot make you reveal your passcodes.

    Shipping via Fedex will be no different (none / 0) (#1)
    by s5 on Mon Jan 07, 2008 at 01:56:02 PM EST
    Shipped goods still have to clear customs, which is no different than carrying it in your suitcase. Worse, your laptop is no longer with you, so if they decide to inspect the hard drive, you won't be present to persuade the customs officer or to see the process through.

    Rent a pc over there (none / 0) (#2)
    by hellskitchen on Mon Jan 07, 2008 at 02:13:40 PM EST
    (wherever there is) and put your data on your private website directory.

    or (none / 0) (#3)
    by Judith on Mon Jan 07, 2008 at 02:21:09 PM EST
    get a flash date travellor and carry it around.  

    Which would also be legally subject (none / 0) (#10)
    by kovie on Tue Jan 08, 2008 at 12:29:24 AM EST
    to inspection. Although, of course, being far less conspicuous, would be less likely to be inspected, unless they're doing more extensive random spot checks or are specifically targetting you.

    My question is what does "inspection" mean? Are they limited to quickly viewing the contents of your hard drive right then and there, via your laptop's interface (and only proceeding to more intrusive inspections should they find something that warrants it)? Or can they dump the contents of your hard drive for later, and permanent inspection? And what could they be looking for that would be possible to find in a minute or two, unless they connected the laptop to a device that could sweep it for "suspicious" data? This all sounds quite bizarre to me, because a cursory random inspection is unlikely to yield anything useful, so why bother? It seems to me that they'd need to have prior reason to specifically target you for this to make sense, and then do a much more thorough inspection. So either they intend to target specific people for thorough inspection, or else they intend to employ advanced technology to do thorough inspections of everyone's laptops.


    About that time..... (none / 0) (#5)
    by kdog on Mon Jan 07, 2008 at 03:07:50 PM EST
    It might be time to leave the laptop at home...

    Or better yet, it's about that time to get a new govt. who isn't interested in the contents of their supposed free citizens computers.  The nerve....

    Like clean urine, rent my product Clean PEESEA(R) (none / 0) (#6)
    by jerry on Mon Jan 07, 2008 at 03:08:21 PM EST
    Our agents will meet you outside the airport and switch your disk drive for a Clean PEESEA(R) disk drive.

    This drive will contain an authorized version of windows xp, and will be loaded with registered copies of our largest corporate software makers.

    Documents on the disk drive will attest to your interests and activities in Republican Politics, and demonstrate your fealty to the US Government.

    eBooks on the Clean PEESEA will contain biographies of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

    While you enjoy your flight, our agents will make a copy of your disk drive, encrypt it, and send it to our agents at your destination, where your disk drive will be reconstructed on a new drive.

    When you are met outside of customs at your destination, a short five minute procedure will replace our Clean PEESEA disk drive with your original data.

    Our bonding and insurance attests that your original disk drives are overwritten and wiped using procedures required by the Pentagon when wiping classified materials.

    Laptops or truth serum? (none / 0) (#7)
    by Evergreen on Mon Jan 07, 2008 at 03:09:27 PM EST
    I would suggest that a laptop is the extension of our own mind.  (at least my computer serves that roll the older I get!)  Ergo...if truth serum at the border is illegal so should be computer snooping.

    diary (none / 0) (#8)
    by diogenes on Mon Jan 07, 2008 at 06:22:00 PM EST
    If I have a book labelled "My Diary" in my suitcase, can the customs inspectors legally read it if they inspect my suitcase? There must be case law one way or another about this question.

    My understanding is that they can do this (none / 0) (#11)
    by kovie on Tue Jan 08, 2008 at 12:41:28 AM EST
    E.g. confiscating pornographic materials at the border. They'd have to either know beforehand that you have such materials, or else be able to inspect everyone's materials to see who might have some.

    In any case, this all sounds quite creepy to me. I can understand visually looking for physical contraband like forbidden foods, firearms, illegal drugs, etc. But searching through intellectual property without a court warrant based on reasonable suspicion that you were involved in potential crimes? Insane.

    Don't states have the right to do this too? E.g. firearms, liquor, cigarettes, etc. Color me a libertarian on this one. Make them earn the right to inspect my stuff before the do so, by coming up with a probable cause to justify it.