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Returning to U.S. with a Computer Poses Risks for Private Data

Returning to U.S. with a Computer Poses Risks for Private Data

by , 3:00 PM EDT, May 2nd, 2008

A recent ruling by a U.S. Court allows border patrol agents to inspect and search a notebook computer or other digital device without limitation, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Travelers cannot be forced to divulge the password for encrypted disks, but the computer can still be seized.

Travelers and their employers are increasingly concerned that Custom and Border Protection agents could compromise sensitive information, trade secrets and private attorney-client communications. The EFF and other organizations have sent a letter to Congress asking for legislation to protect travelers from unlimited government scrutiny of their notebooks computers and smartphones at the borders.

Currently, travelers have several options. They can leave their computers at home. Or they could travel with a sanitized computer intended to only create content that is later encrypted and transmitted back to their employer's offices. Another tactic is security through obscurity -- hope that the border agents aren't too curious. However, if they do become curious, the CBP has the authority to detain the traveler or seize property. A federal court has ruled that the password doesn't have to be divulged, but declining to provide that information could mean confiscation of the computer. Finally, travelers who may have sensitive information on their smartphone are advised to enable the password lock before heading to the airport.

"There are no options that provide perfect privacy protection, but there are some options that reduce the likelihood that a legitimate international traveler's confidential information will be subjected to arbitrary and capricious examination," Jennifer Granick wrote for the EFF.

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