US border laptop searches: the other warrantless surveillance




It’s not exactly news that border agents exercise broad discretionary powers with little to no oversight. This is true worldwide, and unless you are an honest to god diplomat there is not much you can do outside of avoiding travel.

This is especially true of the Mexico border. Agents there can, if they feel like it, just rip your car apart looking for whatever and then hand you a bag full of broken parts if they don’t find anything.


Remember that the US “Border” isn’t just the actual line on the dirt that defines the border - it’s also any area a moderate distance from the border where the Border Patrol, Customs, La Migra, or other government agents might suspect that you’ve gotten there by crossing the border, such as the border guard stop on I-5 north of San Diego, or just about any airport. Cars routinely get stopped within 100 miles of the land borders (mostly Mexico, but sometimes also Canada because of potential marijuana smuggling.) The Feds aren’t routinely abusing this to expand laptop searches, but it happens.


If you’re worried about this, first step is full-disk encryption. Then at least you can decide whether you want to argue with them and risk them turning you back.


And if you use full disk encryption, make sure your laptop is OFF (not just on standby) when crossing the border. Full disk encryption is of no use if they can just plug in an exploit-o-matic USB key and have the OS decrypt/copy the whole thing for them. Full disk encryption only works when your machine is off.



“A moderate distance” including most of the country.


My fantasy is to show up for a flight with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, a one-way ticket to the other side of the country (paid with cash), work ID, and some pocket money. Then I would refuse to answer questions about anything beyond Transportation Safety. I think amusing hijinks would ensue. It would be a great vacation story. “No phone? Terrist!”


I was in Kiev recently (YAPC) and travelled without any high-tech (phone died and I used that occasion to upgrade the laptop) and I got a couple of suprised border guards asking the “no phone?” question, But at least it was safer to travel there instead of visiting the USA.


I think a lifetime entry on the ‘Special Security Screening List’ might ensue. Annoy them once, and they can screw with you forever. And they never have to tell you why you get the “Bend over and spread 'em” treatment every time you go to the airport. “Why? Because reasons”

Not that I would want to discourage anyone from standing up for their rights out of fear of possible subsequent administrative persecution. But I’m just pointing out that official vindictiveness can potentially follow you all the days of your life, and you should at least bear that possibility in mind when deciding what to do.


Not carrying your phone/laptop/etc… isn’t that unusual when traveling to foreign countries. At my work we’re not allowed to bring any electronics to certain countries if we travel there, because it is assumed that they will be searched and potentially bugged by the government at the border. We have burner laptops that you can bring if you absolutely need to, but you’re not allowed to connect to any corporate resources while on travel in hostile countries, so they’re kind of pointless.


It is exactly news that the DHS puts people they want to surveil, but whom judges would not permit them to surveil, onto travel watchlists, so that they can specficially target those people for surveillance that would be illegal otherwise.


The search itself is not news however; meaning that the these sorts of border searches (of laptops) have been upheld as not violative of the 4th Amendment. So there is that. The lawsuit by the ACLU (Hooray for the ACLU, as always) wasn’t arguing that point, instead they were arguing that specifically targeting people based on some sort of political grounds as not ok. I would have actually been pretty excited to read the actual ruling from this case, but instead the parties settled. Worse, the settlement agreement is fairly unsatisfying in how it may affect this practice by ICE going forward (see clause 6). I would rather have a straight ruling that says it is not ok to conduct a border laptop/cell phone search based on nothing more than political affiliations or 1st Amendment activities. I suspect there may be a pretty complicated back story for the ACLU to settle the matter on these terms, but who knows…


You have a very strange fantasy life.


That just gives them a reason to either hold you until you give up the password or seize your laptop. You’re better off wiping the drive and reinstalling the OS. Cross the border with a clean laptop, then retrieve your data afterwards.


That’s presuming you’ve got another way to transport the data. And that you’re more paranoid than I want to be.


Thankfully everyone has a convenient carrying place for a flash drive. For certain values of convenient.


Various comments withheld as a public service.


Yes. I am sitting in my own room - fully within what they call a ‘moderate distance’. Why on earth should we view ANY of this nonsense as different from the NSA’s warrantless intrusion? There is even more potential for violation of various federal regulation and civil rights law, since they can snag your entire device. And even greater potential for personal economic harm, given that many people need such devices and the files they contain for their work.

I get that some are just looking for intermediate personal solutions. But still. Unacceptable situation, unacceptable government intrusion.


Inside secret space inside of some other pile of electronics, like a digital camera? Or a power supply?