The Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) has warned, during a conference in Barcelona this week, that the visitors to the United States risk having their laptops seized and searched on arrival and departure. The law applies equally to US and non-US passport holders, and following an appeal judgment in a San Francisco court earlier in the year the seizure can be done entirely randomly.
Not so bad, you may think, after all we have learned to expect some disruption to our travel routine in the cause of tighter security since 9/11. But the trouble is, under US law, Customs Agents and Border Patrol officers have the right not only to examine and download the contents of travelers’ laptops (a process which might take hours, days or even weeks) but also to confiscate them. All this without the need to produce a warrant, or even give any probable cause. Just purely, totally, at random.
Although I suspect that ‘looking like a Muslim’ probably ups the odds in favor of them randomly picking you of course.
ACTE gave details of a survey of its international membership at the conference, which revealed that 86 percent of business travel executives are now thinking twice about keeping proprietary information on laptops if traveling to the US. "The information that U.S. government officials have the right to examine, download, or even seize business travelers’ laptops came as a surprise to the majority of our members," said ACTE's Executive Director Susan Gurley, "The common belief is that there is a right to the privacy of one's computer. Yet it appears that there is none."
Furthermore, the survey suggests that 36 percent of companies have no corporate policies to define and limit this proprietary information for mobile use, while only 29 percent are actively researching the issue. Of the 35 percent that do have such policy, the primary driver has been concern over theft or loss of the laptop, a concern made ever more appropriate if you happen to be crossing US borders it seems. "ACTE´s leadership continues to ask for clarification from the U.S. government regarding what steps, if any, are being taken to protect confidential business, privileged legal, and personal information." said Gurley.
This needs to be done urgently, I would argue, because if you do have proprietary or financially sensitive data on your laptop, and it is confiscated by Customs, then your company is pretty certainly going to be in breach of data compliance laws such as Sarbanes Oxley. Encrypt the data, like any sensible security savvy traveler would, and Customs are more likely to keep your laptop for longer as it will taken them longer to get at the information on it.
Which makes this something of a lose-lose situation all round: for business, for US travel and commerce (I’ll be more inclined to stay at home and web-conference, thanks) and perhaps most of all for common sense.