Surviving Homeland Security


Joe Sharkey wrote an interesting article in the New York Times exploring the practice of computers being confiscated and searched at points of entry to the United States. It doesn’t seem to be particularly common or widespread, judging by a small number of accounts and that it’s not a well-known practice.

Last week, an informal survey by the [Association of Corporate Travel Executives], which has about 2,500 members worldwide, indicated that almost 90 percent of its members were not aware that customs officials have the authority to scrutinize the contents of travelers’ laptops and even confiscate laptops for a period of time, without giving a reason.

However you feel about the ethical and political ramifications of such seizures, that fact that it can happen to anyone who’s randomly selected means some caution should be merited when flying with sensitive data, be it personal or professional.

Obviously, backing up your laptop before leaving on a trip is always a good idea anyway, and it would mean that at least you can get back to work even if your machine is being held. While you’re at it, it might be a good idea to delete any data that you don’t want searched. Netscape Anchor Fabienne suggested a number of techniques to encrypt data on your hard drive to make sure that it stays private, including GnuPG, if you simply have to travel with sensitive documents.


Garrett Johnson

Yay for encrypted disk images! No customs punk is seeing my plans for world domination anytime soon. They might get suspicious when they see a file named Evil-Global-Empire.dmg though…

Dean Johnson

You don’t back up your laptop for traveling because you fear the DHS. You backup your laptop because it may get lost, stolen or seriously broken in any number of inventive ways. You back it up because the jarring of travel and temperature fluctuations can put a marginal hard drive into time-to-eat-myself mode. Losing your laptop to the DHS is sooo far down the list of potential problems that you need not even worry about it. Fear mocha latte’s, not DHS thugs.


I might be wrong, but you guys sound as though you accept this @#$%. This is simply not right nor acceptable. Why would you even consider cooperating or not encrypting private data in such circumstances? There are alternatives. Don’t fly or ship your computer instead.

In any case, this is SERIOUSLY messed up. Is freedom and privacy a thing of the past?


I’ve travelled through the US from Australia on my way to Canada many times in the past couple of years, always with a laptop. I’ve never been asked to turn them on, only to open them or remove the battery. Laptops must be removed from any case for x-raying too. Generally the laptop also gets checked for explosives residue as well. I’d be suprised that this data checking would happen to anyone who passes every other check in the immigration/customs system, and they’re pretty thorough with it.

Deleting data using the recycle bin will not remove data fully, it can usually still be recovered, better to use a “file shredder” program if this is your intent.

I think I disagree with having encrypted data, maybe that makes you more suspicious? Wouldn’t want to have to explain what’s in that unreadable, (and therefore possibly encrypted) 100MB of hard drive now would you? You’d want to have the encryption software off your hard drive too, otherwise they know that you are hiding something.

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