[SoundStage!]The Traveler
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May 2006

Illegal Downloads -- New Concerns for Cross-Border Travelers

Do you know what's on that laptop you're carrying? You'd better if you're planning any cross-border trips.

This year I have traveled quite a few times to the United States from my home in Canada, which I don't mind doing because it’s normally a pretty easy skip across the border. However, although it’s usually quite easy to go back and forth, occasionally you'll hit some snags, sometimes because a flight gets canceled, or other times you'll get snowed-in someplace. That happened to me once, and I ended up waiting at the airport for almost eight hours, only to stay overnight at a nearby hotel. Or, there are little snags at customs, which are to be expected with cross-border travelling. However, my last time through customs was like no other.

Having customs go through your luggage is no real surprise; anyone who travels quite a bit sooner or later gets called into the back room by officials for a more thorough examination of the goods brought back from travelling. This happens to me quite a bit now that I regularly travel to South America, which is where my wife is originally from. (A customs official once told me that getting searched more often now that I travel back and forth to South America is a "coincidence," but I didn’t believe him.) Watching someone go through your baggage is really no big deal; I'm just happy that the body searches we all hear about are not as common as some people think -- although they do happen from time to time.

However, while I’m used to having my bags checked, my last cross-border trip was different. Once again I was called into the back room, and when I got there a lone customs official was already conducting a search of another passenger's bags. I had to "wait behind the red line" and make sure "not to use my cell phone" in "the secured area." Violate these rules and you're in deep you-know-what.

From a distance, then, I watched as the other guy's bags got a good going-over -- the same thing that would be presumably happening to my bags in due time. The customs official was really going to town. He was checking everything -- yanking out clothes, checking through pockets, looking at various packages, and so on. I figured that they must really have something on this guy.

Then I heard the official ask the gentleman for his laptop, which I thought was just to ensure that it wasn’t bought abroad and brought back without paying taxes (which is why you should always carry some sort of proof of purchase with you, or get a special customs card made that stipulates the product was purchased in your home country -- they question these sorts of things). But they weren’t just considering where he’d bought it; they were about to conduct a search of the contents of his computer. You know, the files stored on it! I’d never seen this done before, and my heart skipped a beat. I had a laptop too!

The official started up the computer and then asked the man for his userid and password (one good reason not to have some embarrassing password). He started going through this man's laptop file by file -- presumably searching for something suspicious. But what exactly was he looking for? Good question.

It's safe to say that everyone who has a laptop probably uses the Internet, and even if you don't deliberately download pornography, for example, there's a good chance you have some on your computer. For example, do you get all those e-mails with pornography buried in them? Heck, I get dozens of those per day, usually from e-mail addresses with all kinds of strange letters and from countries I can't identify. And they just won't stop! Have you looked at some of them? Is that stuff legal in every country?

Furthermore,  many people travel with computers from work -- computers that might be shared with other employees who might put some questionable content on them, deliberately or not. Are you responsible for that? I can only imagine that if you’re carrying a computer and customs is searching it, then you're on the hook for whatever is found.

Then there’s the stuff that might not be dirty, but might be questionable. What about downloaded music or videos? Do you have permission to have them? Are you violating any copyright laws? Are they legal or not? Do the customs officials even care about stuff like that if they find it? Frankly, I’m not sure, but if you’re going through customs anytime soon, you might want to find out.

After about 20 minutes, that first passenger was cleared to leave, and then it was my turn to get put through the ringer. I was loaded up with more electronics than the guy ahead of me -- laptop, digital camera, video camera, and a half-dozen CompactFlash cards with pictures I couldn't remember. And, yes, it all got a going over -- the pictures I took were all examined and the files on my computer were examined as I stood there trying not to break a sweat and wondering all the time, "Did I delete that e-mail Dave sent me with photos of...?" Luckily, the customs official didn’t find anything all that bad. Dave's pictures weren't on my computer any longer. Whew! However, I did once again have to produce proof that I purchased each of the major electronics at home in Canada; I carry that information with me, as should everyone who goes across the border.

Still, this computer search left me somewhat shell-shocked, and when I got home I immediately went online and did a search to find out if my experience had happened to others. Sure enough, it had. In no time I found a guy who was using an office computer and did have some "questionable content" on it -- porn, not surprisingly. He actually had his computer confiscated for a "forensic search"! They never found anything bad enough on it in the end, but he was a day without his computer and he had to travel back to the airport to get it. And there was an instance where someone not only didn't get his computer back, he was arrested. Porn again. Undoubtedly, it’s stuff like this that has prompted these types of searches, so now everyone has to be on the lookout and should anticipate that their computers will be searched.

What it appears customs officials are looking for right now is hate literature and illegal pornography -- no surprise, really -- but with searches that look for one thing, what happens if they find another? For example, what about music or video files? Or burned CDs or DVDs? Do they care about piracy? I have no idea, but I do know this: From now on I’ll think twice about what I bring across the border, and if I’m carrying my laptop with me, I’ll surely check my own files well ahead of time so I don’t sweat bullets the next time the customs agents call me into the back room. I suspect that it will happen to me again in the future, and to others as well.

...Doug Schneider

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