Going abroad? Leave the laptop

Planning a trip abroad? If so, you might want to reconsider taking your laptop or BlackBerry with you. If you do, and if you then want to bring it back to the U.S., keep in mind Uncle Sam’s agents are authorized to inspect and detain it, and copy any information stored in it. Incidentally, the government need have not one iota of suspicion you are doing anything wrong in order to exercise such sweeping power.

The tremendous reach of this federal policy, reaffirmed as recently as last month by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, traces to our county’s founding. A premise of national sovereignty once we severed our ties to the British Crown is the power of the nation to protect its borders. Federal courts have long allowed the government the broadest of powers to inspect people and goods entering the country. Until recently, however, this so-called border power was generally understood to mean conducting physical inspections of a traveler’s belongings — looking in luggage and carry-on bags to see if a person was trying to sneak in contraband.

In earlier times, the government also relied much more heavily than nowadays on customs duties for its revenues, and the number of offenses for which federal agents were responsible was far fewer. As such, it was difficult to fault customs agents for conducting brief physical inspections of travelers’ luggage.

Unlike customs agents in the post-Revolutionary War era, however, the jurisdiction today of federal law enforcement agents encompasses literally thousands of criminal and civil offenses, involving controlled substances, firearms, large amounts of cash, agricultural products, Cuban cigars, pornography, environmental and endangered species offenses, human rights violations, various financial instruments, intellectual property and copyright crimes, espionage, terrorism, tax evasion and music piracy.

Obviously, evidence of such activities can be stored on laptop computers and other electronic devices. Hence the keen interest on the part of the Customs and Border Protection (CPB) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to extend government’s ancient power to look for physical contraband, to virtually any electronic device.

Modern-day electronic devices — not just laptops, but cell phones, BlackBerries, cameras, iPhones, iPods, computer discs, DVDs, and anything else capable of storing data — have become treasure troves of potentially valuable information. Not surprisingly, the government has vigorously asserted its power to extend physical border inspections to include all manner of electronic scans.

According to the most recent government “directive” on this subject, issued Aug. 25, a CPB or ICE agent “may review and analyze” any “information encountered at the border” (which extends to ports of entry such as Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport), and may do so “with or without individualized suspicion” that the traveler may have violated anything wrong. Any electronic devices singled out for inspection can be shared with other law enforcement agencies. The items also can be retained for however long the government needs to conduct as thorough a search of the device as it deems necessary. Magnanimously, the government does promise to make arrangements to later return the device(s) to the owner.

The huge expansion of the universe of possible offenses for which an individual can be charged, coupled with the massive increase in the amount of information that can be stored on even the cheapest of modern electronic devices, has caused many privacy advocates and civil libertarians to question the propriety if not the constitutionality of this vast expansion of the government’s “border search” power. In the absence of legislation placing reasonable limits on this power, the 1,000 such searches just of laptops the government said it has conducted in the last year, will expand exponentially.

40 comments Add your comment

joe matarotz

September 14th, 2009
6:31 am

Ken Stepp

September 14th, 2009
6:49 am

What has happened to our rights ? Its so sad to be born with them and let them slip away in one generation.

Jim Callihan

September 14th, 2009
6:57 am

Sounds like an extension of “The Patriot Act” to me. Remember that Bill? The one introduced by (WI) Republican, Frank James (Jim) Sensenbrenner, Jr. immediately after “9/11″. Yep – the same gut that sits on the “Energy Commission”. The same guy that introduced the “Real ID Act”.

Of course, it was later to be disclosed that this shill did not write the Patriot Act, but rather Viet Dinh (along with his “Harvard Review” pals – remember them, “HR Pres. Barry Soetoro”).

Bush=Clinton=Bush=Obama=UN/NWO

WAKE UP!!!

Jen

September 14th, 2009
7:06 am

I and my colleagues travel internationally extensively and we’ve never run into this search. Just saying.

Joshua Schiffer

September 14th, 2009
7:12 am

As a criminal defense lawyer who typically differs with Mr. Barr, he hits the nail on the head with this one. One over-riding purpose of our Constitution is to protect the citizenry from the intrusiveness of governement. Until such a broad rule, similar to “all who enter this country waive their rights to be secure in the posessions and electronic information,” is instituted by our legislatures, ICE, and other well intentioned but over zealous prosecuting agencies, will only use these policies to disregard our most basic rights of free of thought and beliefs. Kudos to Mr. Barr for raising this most basic and important issue to all citizens, regarless of party.

BitterEXdemocrackkk

September 14th, 2009
7:29 am

So, what will Schiffer and Barr commence doing about this privacy invasion by the government?

AmeliaTC

September 14th, 2009
7:30 am

joe matarotz

September 14th, 2009
6:31 am

So what?

Guys like you Joe are why we are losing our freedom. Stand like a man Joe if you want to remain free. Quit being such a sheep. I bet you call yourself a “patriot” too. True patriots fight this stuff with all their might. Wasn’t stuff like this the reason the colonists rose up against the British Crown in the first place?

boots

September 14th, 2009
7:39 am

If this issue is addressed in the courts, I’d be willing to bet it will be the much maligned ACLU that steps forward to insure the civil liberties of an unappreciative constituency.

Jacks Mum

September 14th, 2009
7:52 am

Can someone explain exactly how they can do this without any just cause (even the made up kind)? Are their areas in the world that trigger the searches, or do I need to get a go-phone for my trip to the Bahamas? Nothing to hide, just protecting my rights.

Also, do they keep dossiers on people who are searched? If so I recommend we institute an immediate amendment to ensure ALL politicians are subjected to this type of search based on their proximity to our security and that ALL information captured is turned over to local, state and federal law enforcement including the IRS. That should take care of some of the sweep-up.

Donald D

September 14th, 2009
8:32 am

Come on; think people….this doesn’t make sense!!!! You really believe this????
If anything (which I doubt); it sounds like somebody ticked off a security office so they made up some rule and took their laptop.
People travel all the time with laptops…internationally!!!!
Like so much spin these days; this simply is not true.

Tim

September 14th, 2009
8:38 am

I have traveled extensively and have not encounterd this, but this is not the first time I have heard of it. Until you walk through the door on the other side of customs, you are not officially on American soil, hence the reason they can search whatever they want. You would hope the rights of citizens entering their own country would still be protected, but not under our current govt.

Freddie

September 14th, 2009
9:04 am

I crossed at Buffalo with my wife and daughter recently. I was surpised they asked us to ‘pop the trunk’ and they did a quick search in the back of our car. we cad copied DVDs in the back, luckily they did not see them. never again.

[...] Some opinion: Going abroad? Bob Barr advises that you leave the laptop. [...]

Cutty

September 14th, 2009
10:22 am

Gotta love the Patriot Act.

jconservative

September 14th, 2009
10:23 am

Jacks Mum September 14th, 2009 7:52 am
“Can someone explain exactly how they can do this without any just cause…”

They can do it becauses they can do it & get away with it. Why? Because the American people really do not care about their 4th Amendment rights. They just want to be “protected”.

“Those who willingly give up their liberties in the name of security, deserve neither.”

The Government is Coming, The Government is Coming.....

September 14th, 2009
11:38 am

I didn’t know the colonists had laptops?

Jon but not Jon Voight

September 14th, 2009
1:53 pm

Bob Barr is an expert on the abuse of government power.

Rockerbabe

September 14th, 2009
2:05 pm

AND, why are you complaining? You conservatives claim you are about safety and security; you fan the flames of hatred and mistrust and blame the Dems for being “lax” on security. You are getting what you claim the Dems are not doing – namely protecting this country. So stop all the gripping; or, maybe you want the laws to just apply to the “bad guys” or namely, anyone, who is not you are your ilk?

I don’t fly anymore; not if I can drive it in 10 hours or less. The cost, the hassle factor and the anger-provoking treatment is the reason. I don’t take my laptop anywhere; it stays home. My mobile phone is another matter. While I agree with Mr. Barr on many levels, most of the security measures started in the Bush administration and any loosening of the inspections always seems to lead to a cry of the Dems are “soft on crime” and are not being security consciencous. So, Mr. Barr, if you want more civil treatment and privacy at the airport, I suggest you implore your conservative collegues to tone down the rhetoric and vitrol.

GEORGE AMERICAN

September 14th, 2009
2:13 pm

THEY CAN TAKE OUR COMPUTERS, BUT THEY CAN NEVER TAKE…

OUR FREEDOM!!!!

Eagle

September 14th, 2009
2:13 pm

Donald D and others who doubt….this is true. My daughter who is an airline pilot had a bulletin from her company on this very subject in the last couple of days. Also, Google and you’ll find a number of other sources….such as:
http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/08/27/borders.computers/

http://tech.yahoo.com/blog/null/106754

Jen

September 14th, 2009
2:20 pm

And, of course, if you’re traveling internationally for work…you ARE going to be bringing your company-issued laptop AND your company-issued mobile.

Eagle

September 14th, 2009
2:30 pm

To those who doubt….this is true. My daughter who is an airline pilot had a bulletin from her company on this very subject in the last couple of days. Also, Google and you’ll find a number of other sources….such as:
http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/08/27/borders.computers/

http://tech.yahoo.com/blog/null/106754

pd

September 14th, 2009
2:33 pm

Just have your laptop and other things shipped to your destination. Pretty simple.

I do think its wrong that they do this, but there is a way around it.

Jefferson

September 14th, 2009
2:42 pm

Never make a cardboard sillhouette of a hand gun covered in foil and put in a coworkers carryon bag

Joan

September 14th, 2009
2:57 pm

Well, maybe the answer is you just don’t have things on your laptops that reveal that you are a crook, a terrorist or other law breaking person. Isn’t that the simplest answer? I mean, of all the responses no one suggested that by being honest and decent and not having trash on your laptop is the answer. What does that say about our country and its people? It is pretty sad.

Jen

September 14th, 2009
3:24 pm

Joan…that’s not the point. You should have some expectation of privacy with your own stuff. You could have pictures of yourself having sex with pieces of fruit stored on your computer and not have to worry that it will be siezed and that information commandeered by someone else.

However, the risk of having your laptop or phone appropriated by security while returning to the US on international travel is low.

I mean, I just came back from South Africa. The plane landed at ATL at 7am and it took two hours to get through immigration and customs before I could get on MARTA and go home.

I can only imagine the backlog that would happen if they started doing computer searches without actual realized cause.

Chris Broe

September 14th, 2009
3:42 pm

The bard lives.

Realist

September 14th, 2009
3:48 pm

Rockerbabe,

You need to learn that libertarians are for less govt and more personal freedoms. Barr is a Libertarian first.

whatever

September 14th, 2009
4:50 pm

bob, you need to go back and study the law. there is an even bigger issue regarding taking laptops overseas, and that is the illegal transfer of technology to foreign countries without the express permission of the feds. if your laptop has any technology installed that is controlled technology (and you would be shocked at what is considered controlled technology), you could be jailed and fined heavily if you did not receive permission to take your laptop with you. that is why a lot of companies do not allow their employees to take their laptops overseas with them, especially if they are heading to the middle east or asia. big big no no.

Barr ??

September 14th, 2009
5:04 pm

Bob Barr, concerned about overreaching federal laws, taking away individual rights and property??? LOL!!! As a federal prosecutor, he routinely enforced these corrupt laws and took property and freedoms. Now, he acts like he’s “concerned.” Very funny!!!!

whatever

September 14th, 2009
5:06 pm

and before anyone goes off the hook alleging an additional patriot act conspiracy, its called Export controls.

Eric

September 14th, 2009
9:37 pm

This is a horrible situation–of great national concern that our electronic media is subject to search, “just because.” Thanks for reporting again, Mr. Barr. Maybe the time has come to do away with all this technology mess anyway. Let’s go back to the blue Bellsouth trimline (land line) phones and drop texting, etc. Life back in the 1970s was the last great decade of America before all the consumerism and technology in our midst today.

Tom

September 15th, 2009
6:31 am

Yep PD, you can ship your laptop to yourself and guess where you’ll probably have to go to pick it up, a U.S. Customs office. They’ll probably ask you why you shipped it instead of carrying it into the U.S. Hope you have a good answer. Of course, just because you shipped it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been searched, scanned and analyzed.

Also, you better be able to prove ownership and value. You would have had to furnish value information on the export documentatoin (yes,you are exporting your laptop to the US) that you would have been required to submit to the shipping company.

It isn’t simple.

joe matarotz

September 15th, 2009
7:06 am

False alarm. With all this talk about losing my freedom, it got me to thinking, “Where is it?” So I went home and checked last night and it was right where I always keep it. No freedom lost. I’m relieved. Ya had me worried for a second.

David

September 16th, 2009
3:40 am

This must be what conservatives mean by “keeping government out of our lives.”

[...] The huge expansion of the universe of possible offenses for which an individual can be charged, coupled with the massive increase in the amount of information that can be stored on even the cheapest of modern electronic devices, has caused many privacy advocates and civil libertarians to question the propriety if not the constitutionality of this vast expansion of the government’s “border search” power. In the absence of legislation placing reasonable limits on this power, the 1,000 such searches just of laptops the government said it has conducted in the last year, will expand exponentially. via blogs.ajc.com [...]

[...] The huge expansion of the universe of possible offenses for which an individual can be charged, coupled with the massive increase in the amount of information that can be stored on even the cheapest of modern electronic devices, has caused many privacy advocates and civil libertarians to question the propriety if not the constitutionality of this vast expansion of the government’s “border search” power. In the absence of legislation placing reasonable limits on this power, the 1,000 such searches just of laptops the government said it has conducted in the last year, will expand exponentially. via blogs.ajc.com [...]

Sarah

September 19th, 2009
3:54 pm

Great. so i’ll hold off on buying that new macbook and doing the full transfer until AFTER i’ve moved out of the country…

thanks for the tip!

John Doe

September 20th, 2009
2:11 am

I heard that at border crossings agents can ask you whether you have things like fruits and vegetables in your vehicle (whether they suspect it or not!) and they can even ask you to pull over so they can search your entire trunk for anything they think is illegal!

It’s time to end the tyranny!!!!!!!!

[...] According to the most recent government “directive” on this subject, issued Aug. more [...]