Travellers warned over US laptop seizures

Customs may want to hold onto your laptop for weeks or months after US customs powers are extended

Business travellers to the US now face indefinite confiscation of laptops and other mobile devices, with the powers of American customs authorities appearing to have been extended.

Concern was expressed by many this summer after an appeal judgement delivered by a San Francisco courthouse making it legal for US customs agents and immigration officials to conduct detailed scans of laptop hard drives and browser caches on an entirely random basis.

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Now the problem has apparently escalated, with a number of reported cases of laptops being randomly seized by agents and held for a matter of months, with no warrant necessary or probable cause required.

No plans are thought to exist at present to grant similar powers to European border officials, but the US laws affect any nationality seeking entry into that country.

The issue has been one of the major topics of a conference in Barcelona this week held by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives.

Research by the body, which numbers around 2,500 members worldwide, shows that almost 90 per cent of its members were not aware that US customs officials have the authority to examine the contents of laptops, and even seize them for a period of time, without giving a reason.

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"The information that US government officials have the right to examine, download, or even seize business travellers' laptops came as a surprise to the majority of our members," said the association's executive director Susan Gurley.

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"The common belief is that there is a right to the privacy of one's computer. Yet it appears that there is none."

The association also found that 87 per cent of members were, once aware of possible search and confiscation, less likely to carry confidential business or personal information on laptops when travelling.

The problem for many executives is the highly classified nature of the data on their laptops. Having this data out of their possession and in unknown hands could leave them in breach of legislation like the Data Protection Act or Sarbanes Oxley, both of which mandate strictly how data should be guarded and stored.

There is also, naturally, the issue of on-the-spot convenience for people often in a hurry for legitimate reasons.


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