State-supported industrial espionage has an important ally in the Bush administration. The Department of Homeland Security Theatre has decided it needs to be able rifle through notebook hard drives at the US border. A boon to all online storage providers.

Hey, maybe you can buy it back on Ebay!
In the continuing parade of the wildly unpopular Bush administration’s Stupid Government Tricks, (“We had to destroy American liberty to save it”) this is relatively minor: US customs agents snooping through your laptop, and even seizing it. No warrants, no probably cause, none of those legal quibbles that are so dear to limp-wristed Defeatocrats and the ACLU. Just another underpaid government employee taking your notebook and all its data, forever, for any reason at all.

As reported in the New York Times

One e-mail correspondent told me that at Dulles International Airport several months ago as he returned from a business trip to Europe his laptop was seized in what he said he was told was a random search.

“After giving me and my shoes a thorough search, they moved on to my laptop,” he wrote. “On the desktop I had a folder named ‘Blueprints’ which contained, as labeled, blueprints for several potential designs for our company’s expansion in Madrid and Houston.”

He added, “My laptop was initially searched by one person, but he called for backup” when he saw the blueprints. “It seemed they were convinced I was sent to plant bombs in those nonexistent buildings.” He said he hasn’t seen the laptop since.

The The Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) is warning members

. . . that under U.S. law, government agents may seize and search a person´s laptop computer, computer discs, and other electronic media when that person arrives in the U.S. from abroad or departs from the U.S for a foreign country. The law applies equally to U.S. passport holders and non-U.S. passport holders. The association is advising business travellers to be cautious in carrying proprietary information across U.S. borders.

Some hope
In a modest victory for American liberty and the US Constitution (that musty old thing the President swore to “protect and defend”) Clinton-appointed 9th Circuit US District Court Judge Dean Pregerson ruled that customs agents must have a reasonable suspicion to search a computer.

However, the 4th Circuit has ruled otherwise, setting up a potential visit to the Supreme Court. This is bad news since the Supremes are well-stocked with liberty-hating justices like Antonine Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel “strip-search a 10 year old girl? Yum!” Alito. So if you are flying into LA, SF or Seattle, your private data is less likely to be seized at government whim. Flying into the east coast your data is at risk of arbitrary search and seizure.

The StorageMojo take
Other than the unjustified monetary loss customs agents can inflict through notebook seizure, the big concern for companies has to be state-supported industrial espionage. Customs agents have been bribed before and the value of commercial data can be much greater than 440 lbs. of cocaine. A couple of strategies:

  • Use an encrypted on-line storage service and *do not* have any reference to encryption stored on your notebook. This requires you have pretty fast internet access where ever you are going, but it beats not having any access thanks to over-zealous customs agents.
  • Use an encrypted flash drive packed in your suitcase to store sensitive data. Less likely to get searched or confiscated and a lot cheaper than a notebook.
  • Leave the laptop at home and use an encrypted thumb drive loaded with your critical data and portable apps instead (see Build A Portable Opposable Thumb Drive).

And let’s hope my favorite country, the US of A, steps back from its unreasoning fear and reinvigorates its faith in the power of a free people.