Many of you are aware that the Customs and Border Patrol has ruled that there is a 200 mile zone inside the U.S. where they can search your belongings without a warrant and without probable cause.
The Constitution does give Customs a lot of latitude for searches at the border – much more power than say, the police or the FBI have normally, but at least one court is saying this power is not unlimited.
If you think about it, a large part of the U.S. population lives within 200 miles of the border – Most of California, except the eastern part of the state, southern Texas, New York City, Boston, Washington, DC and a lot of other cities. Customs has interpreted their powers to say that they can come up to you and search you and any containers you have with you without cause. For the most part, the courts have upheld that power. The government has said that your laptop or phone is a container that they can search under this doctrine.
In this case, the government had been trying to build a case that Jae Shik Kim was conspiring to sell aircraft technology illegally to Iran. I don’t know if he was or was not. So, when Jae showed up at LAX to fly home to South Korea, the government decided that this was reason enough to seize his laptop and other computer equipment and fly it to a lab 150 miles away to examine it. CBP likens this to opening your suitcase and looking for drugs.
A U.S. District court judge has ruled that this is unreasonable (see ruling) and violated his privacy. This is just a district court so the government may appeal, but at least some judges are beginning to say that Custom’s powers are not limitless.
This has happened to a number a people, Recently, Chris Roberts was picked up by the FBI for a tweet he made while on a United flight. Chris is a security researcher and the feds did not like his tweet, although those in the security community didn’t think it was threatening. The FBI took all his electronic goodies to examine them.
Chris, founder of One World Labs, a security firm, had all of his stuff encrypted, so it is unlikely the feds were able to extract much from his equipment.
The article talks about another programmer, David House, who also had his equipment taken by Customs. In that case, the government eventually agreed that he did nothing wrong and agreed to destroy their copy of his data,
In general, encryption is your best defense against this kind of action. If the encryption is good, then it protects you not only against your laptop being lost or stolen, but also against unreasonable searches. To me, it is unclear why anyone would not encrypt their personal data.
As more data becomes mobile (phone, pad, laptop, cloud), encryption should be an important part of your arsenal for protecting it, wherever it goes.