Will Your Data Survive a Border Crossing?

There has been a lot of talk recently about how most computing usage will move into the Internet cloud. In this vision of the future of computing, people won't even carry personal computers around, they'll just access their data from any system that has access to the Internet. Now, for some people this may not sound all that attractive, but I can think of one group that probably can't wait to use this, namely international travelers. That's because international travelers are increasingly faced with the risk that their laptops might be taken from them, or almost as bad, all of their personal and business data could be copied and taken somewhere unknown. Who is perpetrating these thefts? Why, it's U.S. customs agents, who have been given the OK by the government to view information on, copy the data from or even take the personal electronics (including laptops and smart phones) of travelers entering or returning to the United States.

homelandsecurity.jpgThere has been a lot of talk recently about how most computing usage will move into the Internet cloud. In this vision of the future of computing, people won't even carry personal computers around, they'll just access their data from any system that has access to the Internet. Now, for some people this may not sound all that attractive, but I can think of one group that probably can't wait to use this, namely international travelers. That's because international travelers are increasingly faced with the risk that their laptops might be taken from them, or, almost as bad, all of their personal and business data could be copied and taken somewhere unknown. Who is perpetrating these thefts? Why, it's U.S. customs agents, who have been given the OK by the government to view information on, copy the data from or even take the personal electronics (including laptops and smart phones) of travelers entering or returning to the United States. I first wrote about this a year and a half ago (click here to read Laptop Losses Loom) and at the time I had hopes that the courts would overturn these seizures or that efforts by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Association of Corporate Travel Executives would at least prompt the federal government to provide guidelines on how and when electronics and data could be seized. But since then not much has changed, except for the increasing frequency of people crossing into the United States having their electronics seized or having their personal laptop or cell phone data copied. According to recent news reports about these seizures, there are more than a few companies that are concerned enough about this practice that they have put in place procedures to protect company data for workers who do international travel, in some cases providing special clean laptops for these workers. Since I side with some of those who compare a laptop to a personal, homelike space rather than another piece of luggage, I'd prefer to see this government practice thrown out by the courts. But, realistically, nothing is likely to change anytime soon. So what should those of us who have to travel internationally do? Well, one good step for laptop owners would be to take advantage of imaging software such as Symantec Ghost or Acronis for the PC or Carbon Copy on the Mac, and create two images of your laptop. One would be a perfectly clean, nothing-on-it version of the operating system. The other image would be taken just before you left on your trip and stored (preferably in a couple of places such as work and home). You would bring a bootable DVD of the clean image on your trip and, just before re-entering the country, overwrite your regular system with the clean image. Once you'd passed through customs and returned home, you could restore your standard image. It may seem like a lot of work but in my opinion it may be the only way to truly protect your personal and business data. An encrypted hard drive is one solution offered, but if the customs agent demands that you provide the password or you won't be allowed to fly (or worse), you will most likely provide it. And some solutions based on subterfuge (such as booting to a clean partition) will fail if the system is taken from you. It's sad that international travelers have to deal with this on top of all the other headaches of travel. But until this practice stops or the government provides some clarification of how and when systems and data can be searched and seized, it's the only way to make sure your personal and business data doesn't become part of some big central database.