Lisa Vaas talks about US borders and laptop seizures
Lisa Vaas states that “US customs can and will seize laptops and cellphones, [and] demand passwords”. Her article should be required reading for anyone crossing US borders. She cites an article in Sunday’s Boston Globe which describes the seizure of researcher David House’s laptop, with the authorities apparently looking for House’s connections with Bradley Manning.
Lisa makes it very clear that the American Constitution counts for nothing at the borders, and that the authorities are free to seize and search pretty much at will.
On House’s laptop, that data included contact information for WikiLeaks donors, House’s bank account passwords and family photos, and coding he had done in Mexico, Johnston writes. On other laptops, that data can include not only personal data but trade secrets.
US customs can and will seize laptops and cellphones, demand passwords
There is no mention on whether House’s computer was encrypted. But at the beginning of this year (too late for this incident) the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged a single new year resolution: full disk encryption as a matter of course for all computers.
Without encryption, forensic software can easily be used to bypass an account password and read all the files on your computer.
New Year’s Resolution: Full Disk Encryption on Every Computer You Own
Moreover, EFF had already produced a whitepaper specifically on the border seizure problems: Defending Privacy at the U.S. Border: A Guide for Travelers Carrying Digital Devices. In this paper there is further reference to the House case:
In one instance, ICE held onto David House’s laptop, thumb drive, and digital camera for 49 days. An acquaintance of accused WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning, Mr. House was returning from Mexico when agents confiscated his electronic equipment. While the Justice Department conceded that it held onto his laptop for longer than thirty days, it explained that “[t]he lack of password access required ICE computer experts to spend additional time on Mr. House’s laptop.” Kevin Poulsen, Feds Defend Seizure of Wikileaks Supporter’s Laptop, Wired Threat Level ( July 28, 2011).
Needless to say, the Wired article gives further details. My assumption is that the US authorities got past House’s access password, but not any encryption on the system.
Either way, the moral of this story is that if you value the privacy of your data and even think about visiting the United States, either don’t, or make sure you use the strongest whole disk encryption you can get.