U.S. Government: We can take your laptop and phone at the border

Today marks the first day of 2014, but every day it's feeling more and more like 1984. It seems that not a day goes by without hearing about some government agency accessing our smartphones or monitoring everything we do on the Internet. This spying is secret and not something that directly impacts your life; unfortunately, a federal court has confirmed that the government also has the right to search and sieze your electronic devices when crossing into the country.

Back in 2010, the ACLU found that the United States Department of Homeland Security was searching laptops and phones of citizens entering the country. In addition, there were indications that DHS was also viewing and copying the contents of these devices. The agency claimed that the 4th ammendment against illegal search and seizure doesn't apply to border crossing, so the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging that stance. Yesterday, the motion was dismissed.

There's still a question as to whether you can be compelled to give up your password, so for now it might be a good idea to encrypt your data before traveling abroad. However it's unclear if there's any encryption software that the government can't decrypt. In addition, if they have physical access to your laptop, they can easily install malware or keylogging hardware to steal your password later.

The ACLU is considering an appeal.

Source: ACLU | Passport and laptop image by Shutterstock

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Step 1) Run Linux, if the whitehouse was still running Windows XP as recently as a year ago, and the federal Network Enterprise Centers I worked with thought ERD Commander was some top secret super squirrel software that only they knew about, then they probably would just think your hard drive was blank if they plugged it into a Windows machine through an external adapter and it identified an EXT4 file system as "Unknown".

Step 2) Encrypt that hard drive, the entire hard drive, with something like Truecrypt.

Mr. Hand said,
So, which countries do you think did not do immigration checks? When do you think the US started?

Strawman Argument. No one is arguing against immigration, customs, border policing etc.

They are arguing against illegal search and seizure of the property (intellectual and material) of verified US citizens when re-entering their own country.

It's about the 4th Amendment, due process, and well, just what is right and what this nation used to stand for.

You do realize the 4th amendment applies inside the United States only and isn't some global concept? This is international travel, and you simply do not have the rights inside any country when asking to enter it. Sorry, but that's the reality.

Obelix said: "These Romans are crazy..." I say: "These Americans are crazy.." Let's say I go to the US for a business meeting, carrying sensitive documents and new patents to meet with an investor. Here comes Homeland and copies all my documents and I cannot even defend myself in court. Somebody gets hold of my patents and I loose millions.

America America, here comes the dark ages again yippee!

Anyone that's done any amount of international travel would not be surprised by this. Basically the individual rights of the various countries do not apply when passing between them unless there is a treaty covering it. Unrestricted travel between states is what made the US so unusual.

"A Federal Court" does not equal the supreme court, which is where this is going to end up. Its illegal search and seizure, and will eventually be proven as such.

It's not because you're crossing the border between countries which is a special circumstance. Even if it did, that would only work to suppress it as evidence in a criminal prosecution.

Mr. Hand said,
It's not because you're crossing the border between countries which is a special circumstance. Even if it did, that would only work to suppress it as evidence in a criminal prosecution.

If you're an American citizen, then the 4th Amendment should apply when re-entering the country. Will it? Who knows...

Fezmid said,

If you're an American citizen, then the 4th Amendment should apply when re-entering the country. Will it? Who knows...

It does not as you're in a foreign country. You also must prove your citizenship but providing whatever information is requested. They don't just take your word for it.

Mr. Hand said,

You also must prove your citizenship but providing whatever information is requested. They don't just take your word for it.

Of course not. Once they've taken and verified your passport and identity, your valid citizenship has been confirmed to the degree required by all US laws.

Now they have to admit you to the country via the normal customs processes.

But all US laws should apply to you as a US citizen now...period.

And let's be clear. There is nothing that can exist on any digital device that they should ever have access to.

Information is NOT a crime...ever.

It can be evidence of a crime, but we have LAWS regarding warrants, etc. that must be obtained and served via due process before those searches can be executed. Period.

This is a blatant and thoroughly reprehensible 4th Amendment violation in every sense of the word.

excalpius said,

Of course not. Once they've taken and verified your passport and identity, your valid citizenship has been confirmed to the degree required by all US laws.

Explain exactly how that's done without an investigation? The claim here is the immigration investigation itself is not allowed. After that is done, and you're granted entry into the country, then that's true. I think people are just so wrapped up in ideology they don't think about the logic.

I guess the only alternative would be to backup and encrypt your data in a secure location like a cloud service., Make a drive image of your OS installation and put that in a secure location, and then remove the partitions before you arrive at the border.

After crossing the border, if your computer has a hidden recovery partition, then use that to restore the OS or restore the drive image of your OS installation from the secure location. Next, restore and decrypt your data from the secure location, i.e. cloud, and then go to work.

Before crossing back to the border, backup and encrypt your updated data in a secure location like a cloud service and then remove the partitions again.

After crossing the border, restore the drive image of your OS installation from the secure location and then restore and decrypt your updated data from the secure location, i.e. cloud.

>>encrypt the drive with BitLocker (Windows encryption)

Yes, this would work as well without having to do the above steps. That will show those U.S. Government snoops who is boss.

Edited by ReimondX, Jan 1 2014, 11:56pm :

You would probably be better off encrypting your data on a micro SD card and hiding it somewhere inocuous like inside a travel alarm clock or one of those fake quarters, then stick it between your car seat.

ReimondX said,
I guess the only alternative would be to backup and encrypt your data in a secure location like a cloud service., Make a drive image of your OS installation and put that in a secure location, and then remove the partitions before you arrive at the border.

After crossing the border, if your computer has a hidden recovery partition, then use that to restore the OS or restore the drive image of your OS installation from the secure location. Next, restore and decrypt your data from the secure location, i.e. cloud, and then go to work.

Before crossing back to the border, backup and encrypt your updated data in a secure location like a cloud service and then remove the partitions again.

After crossing the border, restore the drive image of your OS installation from the secure location and then restore and decrypt your updated data from the secure location, i.e. cloud.

>>encrypt the drive with BitLocker (Windows encryption)

Yes, this would work as well without having to do the above steps. That will show those U.S. Government snoops who is boss.


Putting your data in the "cloud" is a bad idea, Keeping it under your control is more preferred. Put it on a sd card or something, as you control that.

>>Putting your data in the "cloud" is a bad idea, Keeping it under your control is more preferred. Put it on a sd card or something, as you control that.

Yes, and if the SD card is lost and/or confiscated, you're screwed. If the data is encrypted in the cloud, it will take the feds time to decrypt, provide they have the private key or somehow brute force the decryption. You don't have to use the cloud, just something off-site will do.

>>You would probably be better off encrypting your data on a micro SD card and hiding it somewhere innocuous like inside a travel alarm clock or one of those fake quarters, then stick it between your car seat.

Ah, yes, I found those french fries between the car seats from the Burger King drive thru, all the loose change from when I first got the car including the 1912 V nickel, various used condoms, and finally the lost SD card that has my encrypted data and no private key backup. :^)

One of these days I'm gonna encrypt the drive with BitLocker (Windows encryption) and flip on the part where I don't need a TPM chip to use it. Doing that allows me to use a mini usb flash drive instead to unlock the OS or even just enter a really long random recovery key.

We'll given the amount of power the NSA has, and if you are very outspoken of your support of Edward S. And just the general anti NSA surveillance, more privacy etc. I would be worried about crossing the border.


So back in 2010 there were indications that someone might be boarding a flight somewhere with the intent of being involved in some sort of criminal activity and based on that electronic devices were searched at the perceived airport of departure.

Are we now so paranoid we start to measure anything the US gvnmt does wit the same global and general stick? In all the times I have been to the US several times a year I have never ever had any issues bringing whatever electronics in or out..

Maybe it would be wise to add some context instead of going all tabloid on this 'news'

paulheu said,

So back in 2010 there were indications that someone might be boarding a flight somewhere with the intent of being involved in some sort of criminal activity and based on that electronic devices were searched at the perceived airport of departure.

Are we now so paranoid we start to measure anything the US gvnmt does wit the same global and general stick? In all the times I have been to the US several times a year I have never ever had any issues bringing whatever electronics in or out..

Maybe it would be wise to add some context instead of going all tabloid on this 'news'


How is this tabloid? The government says they have the right to take your electronics without any probable cause. Many feel that violates the 4th amendment. Just because they haven't done it to YOU doesn't mean they aren't doing it to people.

Some people would rather feel safe by denying that they are a victim. This only works in the short term though.

If you were a journalist covering, for example, the NSA stories and carrying with you materials related to the story you would be concerned to arrive and have your laptop "confiscated"... and rightly so.

Fritzly said,
If you were a journalist covering, for example, the NSA stories and carrying with you materials related to the story you would be concerned to arrive and have your laptop "confiscated"... and rightly so.

Which case do you refer to?

True crypt is going through an indepdent audit. And if they can just take your tech at the border, then it's another reason to add to the list to not visit America. They are sewing the seeds of their own demise. People won't go and spend money, America needs more tourism help the economy out!

Better hope the laws keep protecting your encryption keys, but even then like I said they get to keep a copy of your drive and crack it at their leisure.

And hey, if there's a way to exploit your software and bypass encryption they can just do that. I realize with whole drive encryption it's more difficult but you never know.

"However it's unclear if there's any encryption software that the government can't decrypt."

says who? Tinfoil hat Joe? Good luck cracking truecrypt

Either way, they keep a clone of your media and flaws will be found in the future, or the means to brute force it will become available. As time goes on, your drive image won't magically update its encryption type/strength.

Who says it's illegal? It might be sensitive (I.e. trade secrets from your work) or just have personal data (I.e. nude pics of your wife) or whatever. It could have your grandma's chili recipe or just your shopping list. Either way it's none of their business.

If you don't want someone looking at it, duh, don't take it through immigration. Do you keep nude photos of your wife in your luggage and then whine and complain they looked in your luggage???

Privacy is important to people, and that stuff is none of their business and it doesn't help with national security. Just because they can doesn't mean they should. Are you going to roll over every time just because of authority? The founding fathers would be ashamed.

Because its not like any terrorist is going to upload sensitive information to skydrive or gdrive and have a completely "clean" laptop and phone when they enter the good ol US of A is it now!.

Seems like a typical overreaction by the powers that be to me.
No way I'd ever travel to the USA and potentially be put through all this!

Mr. Hand said,
So, immigration visas should be automatic with no background checks without probable cause?

Do you understand that this ruling applies to US citizens?

Fritzly said,

Do you understand that this ruling applies to US citizens?

And? Someone walks up to the border and says, "I'm a citizen" and they should say, "Okay, we're not going to check if you are...in you go."

Mr. Hand said,

And? Someone walks up to the border and says, "I'm a citizen" and they should say, "Okay, we're not going to check if you are...in you go."


In case you have never traveled abroad let me clarify to you how it works: you arrive at the immigration check and show your PASSPORT.... you do not just say I am an US citizen.

Fritzly said,

In case you have never traveled abroad let me clarify to you how it works: you arrive at the immigration check and show your PASSPORT.... you do not just say I am an US citizen.

Oh, so if you have a printed booklet, then we just blindly believe you? Come on people, this argument is getting pretty weak. If you have actually gone through immigration, you would know they do more than that such as asking questions and searching luggage. If you're driving, they do a vehicle registration check to see it matches the answers you give. Yes, you're assumed to not have entry rights until you prove otherwise. Once inside the country, then you have Constitutional rights.

You realize they take it and scan the barcode which confirms that the printed booklet is in fact real and also confirms what you are saying. I have never had my luggage searched yet and the luggage and I have gone through x-rays but never opened or searched. I travel for work and personal all the time from Canada to the USA and back.

I travel continuously and when I come back what I do is showing my US passport which is swiped through a reader, sometimes I am asked how long I have been away and this is it.
They can random check your luggage but that at Custom checkpoint not the Immigration one.
Nice try though....

There's really no point making things up as anyone that really travels internationally knows better. You have to prove your eligibility to enter the country. That's the way it is and no spin will change that. Just having to produce ID is part of proving it.

The real claim here is somehow an electronic device is different than everything else you carry with you. The courts say "nope" and that's unlikely to change.

Again, it is not an ID, it is a Passport. There are some special cases,like in Europe Countries before the EU was established, where an ID was enough;.
BTW for your information when you fly for example from Paris to the US the first immigration check is done at the port of boarding, Charles De Gaulle airport in this case before you can board the plane. Oh, and yes the check is performed by US Immigration officers.