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Laptops at border crossings

There's an article on Slashdot about a US Senate hearing on laptop seizures at border crossings. This affects me, because I travel to Canada a lot and plan to move there within a year or so.

It's a problem because my job requires me to handle what amount to people's medical records as data files on my laptop. It's part of my job, and often I work from home. As of right now, I never take my laptop with me to Canada partly because I don't know what would happen if a border agent decided to inspect or copy all of my data. I can get in very serious trouble for breaching patient confidentiality. On the other hand I could get in serious trouble if I refused to allow a search for myself; at best I'd be turned way at the border, having wasted hundreds of dollars to travel there.

I really don't know what I'm going to do when I move. I'll probably have to wipe my computers clean before shipping them up there. Another option would be to encrypt all the data, upload it to the server that hosts my website, then download it all again after I move. It's insane that I'd have to do such a thing though. And shuffling sensitive data around to strangers' computers and servers isn't the safest thing in the world either.

How do lawyers and doctors and people with trade secrets and other people with classified or legally protected information handle border crossings? It's a bit of a conflict of interest.

June 24, 2008 @ 3:08 PM PDT
Cateogory: Rants
Tags: Security, Rant


Quoth foo on June 24, 2008 @ 9:22 PM PDT

I think this is an important problem, but a new one. I'm not sure if there are any good solutions to the problem right now. Are you using Linux for work? If so, you don't really have to worry. Just set GRUB to autoboot Windows, and make sure you don't have running. These customs agents aren't the smartest people. They're not going to realize that a good chunk of your hard drive isn't showing up in Windows and they're definitely not going to boot up a live CD and check out your partitions.

Of course, this is security through obscurity, so you may not be comfortable with that. In that case, just apply the following idea to Linux and set GRUB to autoboot Windows anyway.

If you're using Windows, you should be able to create an encrypted volume on your hard drive. When you're traveling, just move all your sensitive data in there, and don't automount it on startup/login. Then securely wipe the data from the non-encrypted part of the hard drive where the data was before. When the customs agent asks to see your laptop, you log in and there's nothing confidential that they can access. For Windows or Linux, Truecrypt ( is probably the software you want.

JR (your former roommate)
Quoth JR (your former roommate) on August 16, 2008 @ 11:38 AM PDT

Don't know if you are still interested in this topic, but it comes up a bit in my job. I deal with a lot of trade secrets and developing technology, and generally, before I travel through customs (I haven't driven to Canada with any data but I imagine the procedures are similar), I have to upload any sensitive documents to my firms server and remove the data from my laptop. Also, and I cannot confirm it is true, apparently any media you have can be seized and copied as well, so I never carry any disks or flash drives I would not want to be seized. It is a hassle, but an obligation to our clients.

Your employer doesn't have a secure server you can temporarily upload your data to for the move?

Quoth Brian on August 16, 2008 @ 12:12 PM PDT

Yeah I'm interested. My girlfriend just came down here from Canada and I made her SSH all of her files to my computer before she crossed the border with her laptop. (Not that they searched her at customs, because she doesn't look like a terrist.) But it's ridiculous that the border searches can be so easily defeated just by uploading and crossing the border and downloading.

My company has a secure server but it's a hassle to use. I can SSH files from my house to anywhere else, but it bugs me that I have to resort to hiding perfectly legal documents from the government when I didn't do anything wrong.

I didn't expect to hear from you here. How's it going?