At Canoe, David Canton writes about how to protect the privacy of the data stored on your laptop. He highlights tips from the Canadian Bar Association. Some background: Last year, it was revealed that the US Department of Homeland Security has been claiming expansive powers at the border. Border officials appeared to have seemingly unlimited powers to search, seize, share, or “analyze the information transported by any individual attempting to enter, reenter, depart, pass through, or reside in the United States.” This data could be your personal or business address book, personal photos, personal or business e-mail, personal or business taxes or other financial data, and myriad other information. For more on the legality of the searches and the Homeland Security Privacy Office’s report on the searches, read a previous post.
As Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at the time, “The new directives . . . strike the balance between respecting the civil liberties and privacy of all travellers while ensuring (Department of Homeland Security) can take the lawful actions necessary to secure our borders.”
Where “sensitive” information in involved, including solicitor-client privilege and medical records, border guards are directed to consult with agency counsel or the local U.S. Attorney’s office. But any information outside of this narrow privileged category may be searched.
Whether such searches truly accomplish the goal is questionable. As information freely flows across borders via the Internet, physical searches of computers will be of little use. And laws such as copyright are so fact-dependent, and even pose challenges to courts trying to sort out what is allowable, that it’s not a decision a border agent should make.
Turn off your computer early: At least five minutes before you get to U.S. Customs, make sure your computer is turned off so unencrypted information in your computer’s RAM has adequate time to void itself.
‘Clean’ your laptop once it’s returned: This will ensure that no programs or spyware have been installed on your computer.
Canton urges against relying on encryption, “because the border agent may simply ask for your password.” In the United States, the question of forcing decryption of hard drives has come up. In February, CNet reported, “A federal judge has ordered a criminal defendant to decrypt his hard drive by typing in his PGP passphrase so prosecutors can view the unencrypted files, a ruling that raises serious concerns about self-incrimination in an electronic age. In an abrupt reversal, U.S. District Judge William Sessions in Vermont ruled that Sebastien Boucher, who a border guard claims had child porn on his Alienware laptop, does not have a Fifth Amendment right to keep the files encrypted.”