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.

As Editorial Director and Managing Analyst with IT Security Thing I am putting more than two decades of consulting experience into providing opinionated insight regarding the security threat landscape for IT security professionals. As an Editorial Fellow with Dennis Publishing, I bring more than two decades of writing experience across the technology industry into publications such as Alphr, IT Pro and (in good old fashioned print) PC Pro. I also write for SC Magazine UK and Infosecurity, as well as The Times and Sunday Times newspapers. Along the way I have been honoured with a Technology Journalist of the Year award, and three Information Security Journalist of the Year awards. Most humbling, though, was the Enigma Award for 'lifetime contribution to IT security journalism' bestowed on me in 2011.

11 Years
Discussion Span
Last Post by stephanopoulos

Sounds like just another load of scaremongering by some anti-US, anti-government people who think they're done injustice because they no longer can wave their first class tickets at someone and be let through security without a second glance.

Noone is going to confiscate anything without due reason. Airport security has had that authority for decades and it's not led to a very lucrative side trade in expensive items taken from passengers for them, so there's no reason why it should start now.

And noone is going to download the entire content of your laptop to steal your corporate secrets and sell them to the highest bidder (at least not a customs official, I'd be more worried about the passenger in the seat next to you, the one who just cracked your unsecured WiFi card).
BTW, I've yet to see a laptop that would take weeks or months to copy the content of the harddisk to another machine :)


No. The difference now is that the seizures/examinations are being done at random rather than with probable cause.

The fact that Customs are not going to sell your secrets is irrelevant under Sarbanes Oxley, if the data isn't under your control you are in breach...


If a government agency orders you to hand over your data to them you are indemnified AFAIK from any wrongdoing, same as when the data was stolen.
Those are circumstances outside your control.

This is just a lot of anti-government whiners. While there may be more random searches of laptop bags for hidden items, more people told to show their machines indeed work (so as to prove there are no bombs in the battery pack, no hidden weapons hiding out as cirsuit boards) there won't be much more going on.
And sadly so, as this would be a great opportunity to go after piracy. If peoples' computers are combed for illicit material, pirated software, music, and movies would also turn up.


*grumbling about invasion of privacy*

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause


so? All depends on your definition of "unreasonable".
If you're so hot about it, start proceedings to have this challenged at the USSC.


I have to agree with 'Stein here. Random confiscations of laptops is not going to help much. What is needed is some sort of procedure to identify and target the REAL terrorists. Granted people have to cooperate with authorities with security procedures, but random confiscations is taking it too far. Random searches are bordering on unreasonable.


Random searches act as a deterrent to at least the casual terrorist (the guy who suddenly goes nuts and decides to hijack an aircraft, it happens).
They've been used in Europe for the last 30 years, and hardly any hijacking has originated here.
That could of course be luck but you can never rule that out, as luck is also random :mrgreen:

It also makes it harder for the pros to plan ahead, as even the best disguise will no longer be a guarantee for not being searched, increasing the risk to them.
If there's a 10% chance that even the perfect false nose and passport will not help to get you through, that's too great a risk for the pros.


You do have some valid points there. I just wish there was a better way to implement them without confiscations of expenisive machines. I'm not disapproving of this step completely; I do believe it will be helpful, but I think that in the long run, the sheer number of false positives will be greater than the actual positives., not to mention inconveniencing the travellers.


if one of those dell bateries that was recalled exploded on a plane it would be disasterous

maybe all laptops should be banned on planes
(but it would be bad for buissness)


jwenting, Since you've posted, many laptops have been confiscated without reason.

Here is a scenario you haven't considered: For some employees and executives, their laptop contents do not only include their own corporate secrets, but the secrets and internal policies of hundreds of other corporations. It is a valid concern whether this information will be misused or more appropriately, mishandled.

Most, even I, would not trust any government employee or official to handle, process, and properly dispose of confidential information.

Have something to contribute to this discussion? Please be thoughtful, detailed and courteous, and be sure to adhere to our posting rules.