Its a familiar and sad story: A business traveler, on her way to an important meeting, entered a busy airport. Her laptop was taken, along with sensitive company information and all the data needed for that vital meeting.
But Im not talking about a traveler whose laptop was stolen while she was stuck in a busy security line or getting a cup of coffee. Im talking about a business traveler whose laptop was taken from her legally and who didnt get it back for almost a year. Indeed, it wasnt a thief who took this womans laptop but a U.S. customs official.
Customs agents, under U.S. law, have wide latitude when it comes to searching and inspecting travelers and their possessions, including random seizures without probable cause.
The incident described above was a major point of concern at a recent conference of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, or ACTE, a group that is working to get the U.S. government to provide clear guidelines on when a laptop can be seized by customs officials and to warn business travelers about the seizure risk.
There doesnt seem to be any evidence that these types of seizures are happening with any kind of frequency. Only 1 percent of the surveyed members of ACTE knew of someone who had a laptop seized by customs officials.
But if youve ever lost a laptop, whether to customs or carelessness, you know how disastrous it can be. Losing your laptop often means losing the ability to do your job. It also can mean that vital and sensitive company information is no longer in your control.
The alarm sounded by ACTE is just another reason for companies to either create or improve policies for locking down data stored on laptops and other mobile devices.
Businesses worried about the loss of sensitive data should investigate the use of encryption programs to protect important files and directories on mobile systems. If your business is all about sensitive information, you may want to look at tools that encrypt the entire system disk.
However, while encryption will help keep information from falling into the wrong hands (or at least help keep such information from being readable), it doesnt do much good for the poor business travelers walking into important meetings without any of the information, files and presentations they need to successfully perform at the meetings.
Thats why travelers should always have backup plans for getting to all the information theyll need. Strategies include storing relevant information on a secure USB drive, encrypting files on recordable CDs or on networks, or sending information to themselves via Web-accessible e-mail. (I recommend using a combination of two or more of these strategies.)
Getting back to the customs issue, there may not be a big risk of losing your laptop to customs officials right now, but I think that ACTE is doing the right thing by bringing the risk to light before it grows. If the group can get the government to clarify the situations under which a laptop may be seized, it will help businesses to adjust their laptop security and travel policies accordingly.
Theres also a small chance that relief may come from the courts. According to a recent New York Times article on this subject, a federal court in California ruled that border searches of personal electronic information should be based on a reasonable suspicion, making the point that a persons laptop can have as much personal and private data on it as a person has in his or her own home.
I completely agree with this idea and hope that other courts do, too. But, no matter what happens in the case of customs agents and laptops, theres a good chance that someday you will lose a laptop while traveling. If youre prepared for that situation, then the only thing youll have lost is the actual hardware.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The press release from the Association of Corporate Travel Executives on the risk of laptop seizures by customs officials
The online home of U.S. Customs and Border Protection