Can the government take away my laptop?

Laptop Seizure Policy Concerns

Entering the United States might mean surrendering your electronic devices.
Entering the United States might mean surrendering your electronic devices.

Much of the response online to the 9th Circuit Court's decision has been critical. There are numerous Web sites that lob the term unconstitutional around. Others focus on how people can protect their equipment and information when traveling to the United States. A few Web sites support the initiative, pointing out the very real difficulty in protecting a nation like the United States from the threat of a terrorist attack.

Some critics say that the policy is too broad to be considered a protection against terrorism. They say that if federal agents can search electronic devices for evidence of any crime at all -- as was the case with Michael Arnold -- then the policy doesn't really target terrorists. Instead, it targets everyone.

Some people shift from criticism into the realm of conspiracy theory. These people suggest that organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are lobbying for these policies. The theorists believe that these organizations hope to use federal agents to search for illegally obtained music or media files. Effectively, the federal government would act as the music police. While there's little doubt these organizations will benefit from the U.S. policy on searches and seizures, there's no real evidence to link them with the decision of the courts.

According to The Washington Post, several international businesses are changing their policies on international travel. The businesses are urging executives to avoid storing confidential business information on laptops when traveling to the United States. International businesses fear that the U.S. policy will compromise critical, proprietary information. In addition, if the critical information only exists on the confiscated device, the business is at the mercy of the U.S. government [source: Nakashima].

Some bloggers focus not on changing the policy or protesting, but on how to get around the system. Here are a few of the methods they suggest:

  • Leaving your electronics at home when you leave and return to the country
  • Partitioning your hard drive using two levels of encryption to hide the partition
  • Storing private information on a device like a smart card or flash drive and keeping it on your person
  • Wiping your electronics clean and storing all your sensitive information on a virtual private network (VPN) or a secured cloud computing connection

Of course, hiding information from customs agents isn't advisable. For one thing, if a government agent catches on that someone is hiding information, things will likely get much worse before they get better. For another, if enough people take measures to hide information, the government might push for more invasive policies. It's probably safe to say this story is far from over.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Electronic Frontier Foundation. "US vs. Arnold." (Aug. 6, 2008)
  • Nakashima, Ellen. "Clarity Sought on Electronics Searches." Washington Post. Feb. 7, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008)
  • Schneier, Bruce. "Taking your laptop into the US? Be sure to hide all your data first." The Guardian. May 15, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008)
  • Singel, Ryan. "Border Agents Can Search Laptops Without Cause, Appeals Court Rules." Wired. April 22, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008)
  • Tu, Janet I. " Privacy vs. border security: Critics say laptop searches cross the line." The Seattle Times. July 23, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008)
  • The Tucson Citizen. "Electronics subject to search, seizure at the border." August 2, 2008. (Aug. 7, 2008)
  • United States Court Of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. "United States of America v. Michael Timothy Arnold." Filed April 21, 2008. Amended July 10, 2008. (August 5, 2008) ABF5C42AFF3A5CB688257481007EC203/$file/0650581.pdf?openelement
  • United States District Court for the Central District Of California. "United States of America vs. Michael Timothy Arnold." Filed October 2, 2006. (Aug. 6, 2008)
  • USA Today. "Electronics subject to search at border." July 7, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008)