When I travel, I usually have some sort of computer with me, whether it’s a laptop or something simpler like an iPod. Just over the past few days, after returning from an international trip, I learned of a new ruling that says that US Customs now has “the responsibility to check items such as laptops and other personal electronic devices to ensure that any item brought into the country complies with applicable law and is not a threat to the American public,” according to Lynn Hollinger, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman. (via the Wall Street Journal’s Business Technology blog.)
What does that mean? The ruling seems wide open for interpretation. Obviously, you can’t bring in some sort of terrorist plans on your laptop. I don’t know anything how terrorist work. Maybe bad people bringing data across the border on laptops is a big problem.
What’s another way to read the statement from the Customs spokeswoman? Complying with applicable law means not breaking copyright, right? What if you’ve put some movies on your laptop that you’ve ripped from some of your DVDs? That breaks copyright. That’s illegal under the current law. What if you’ve got MP3’s you can’t prove aren’t stolen off the Internet on your iPod? Does that count? If you read the Customs Agent’s quote, it seems to. It at least gives an easy excuse to detain you. According to the Guardian, the UK news site, US Customs “can take your computer and download its entire contents, or keep it for several days.”
A recent article from Ireland’s RTÉ, US seeks intrusive copyright powers, suggests that the copyright protection issue is actually the reason behind this new practice. “More worryingly, the treaty suggests that customs officers should be given the right to search laptops and media players for pirated material. Such officers would be able to confiscate and destroy anything they believe to be pirated, fine the owner and confiscate the equipment.”
For some reason, this story hasn’t gotten much traction in the public sphere, so I wanted to mention it here. If you’re traveling, since this is now the law, you’ve got no choice but to deal with it. One way of doing that is not bringing anything on your laptops or other devices across the border that you don’t feel comfortable having Customs go through in minute detail. Password protection won’t protect you either. According to the same Guardian article, “the border agent is likely to start this whole process with a “please type in your password” and if you refuse, you could be refused entry into the country.
What should you do? Luckily, there are a couple blog posts dealing with this exact issue that you should check out. The first is from CNET, Keep your data safe at the border, and the second is a followup to that post at Crunch Gear, Locking down laptops from the
Customs, with a tip for Mac users.
By even raising this issue, I think it’s obvious that I don’t like this situation. If you’re a US citizen, it’s your responsibility to contact your elected officials and tell them your thoughts on the matter. To contact your elected officials start at the Contact Elected Officials page at USA.gov. In the meantime, you’ve got to deal with the current state of affairs and act the best way you see fit. Good luck.