The New York Times recently reported on the constitutionality of border guards searching your computer hard drive when you enter or reenter the United States. I have heard about this occurring, particularly as reported on BoingBoing.net [here and here], as an information gathering tool for police authorities as well as a punitive measure against ‘persons of interest’ to the US government. According to the Times:
The chosen few — 6.1 million of the 293 million who entered the United States in the year ending Sept. 30, 2010 — get a big letter written on their declaration forms: A for an agriculture check on foodstuffs, B for an immigration issue, and C for a luggage inspection. Into the computer the passport officers type the reasons for the selection, a heads-up to their colleagues in the back room, where more thorough databases are accessible.
And there is where concerns have developed about invasions of privacy, for the most complete records on the travelers may be the ones they are carrying: their laptop computers full of professional and personal e-mail messages, photographs, diaries, legal documents, tax returns, browsing histories and other windows into their lives far beyond anything that could be, or would be, stuffed into a suitcase for a trip abroad. Those revealing digital portraits can be immensely useful to inspectors, who now hunt for criminal activity and security threats by searching and copying people’s hard drives, cellphones and other electronic devices, which are sometimes held for weeks of analysis.
As it now stands, very few people, statistically speaking, are having their digital selves exposed for governmental review. Additionally, there are concerns that when computer and cellphone hardware is in the hands of the government, there is the possibility that they are exploiting manufacturer built-in backdoors or installing rootkits or other virtually invisible monitoring software. Basically, you cannot trust your computer without a full nuke-and-pave if your digital device is searched by the government.
As a digital nomad, I carry my digital life with me on my various digital devices. I protect my data from crooks, but what can I do to protect my data from government compulsion? With our lives increasingly leaving the constitutionally and precedent protected space of the home and ending up online and in our computers, why should we not have the same protections against unreasonable searches and seizures in an obviously concealed space that we control–a virtually mobile home that contains private documents that the government should not have a right to see unless there is a compelling interest based on judicial oversight and a warrant showing just cause?
The ACLU is challenging these searches, and you can read more about their work on Ars Technica here.
While this issue is being sorted out, protect yourself and your data.