As you’ve probably heard, the US customs service has, recently, asserted the right to confiscate any and all computers and/or digital storage carried by anyone crossing the US border. They further assert
the right to demand all passwords, encryption keys, etc., from
the owners. They even further assert the right to keep or make copies of any data that they find, and to share it without limit with anyone they choose.
I don’t think I really need to stress how insane this is. Back
when I worked for IBM, I frequently travelled to Canada, because I
worked with development labs in Toronto and Ottawa. When I did that, I
carried a computer full of stuff that IBM considered to be highly
confidential and highly sensitive. (I’ve even still got a wall-plaque
from IBM thanking for me work on a project, where I’m not allowed to
ever tell anyone what I did to earn it!) What this policy
says is that the border service would have the right to turn that
information over to anyone they wanted, without informing me
or IBM that they had done so. Further, some of the information on that
laptop was encrypted, and I did not have the key. They were
encrypted with a system that would only allow them to be opened if the
computer could contact a particular IBM server from inside the IBM
firewall. So not only could the border service have confiscated the
computer and passed on confidential or private information – but they
could have arrested me for refusing to decrypt the information on the
computer – even though I couldn’t decrypt it.
This isn’t new news. They’ve been doing this for a while, and we know they’ve been doing it – they’ve made absolutely no attempt to
The reason that I’m writing about it now is because I just read
something on Salon about how an allegedly knowledgeable and tech-savvy
person recommends coping with this, and I can’t possible disagree more
strongly. On the Salon Machinist blog, Denise Caruso wrote:
Swire notes that agents at the border are going further than just
taking image copies of people’s hard drives. They’re actually
demanding passwords and encryption keys so they can examine the
Of course, they promise to destroy the copies and the keys as soon
as they’re done — as long as they don’t find anything illegal, like a
downloaded song you didn’t pay for — so no security worries there,
right? There’s no such thing as a crooked customs or Border Patrol
This gives government agents access to information they would
never get by opening up your suitcase. In addition to e-mail,
spreadsheets, documents and personal financial information like credit
card receipts and photos, nowadays they can also listen to your stored
Skype calls and voice mails.
Not to mention that just having encrypted data on your hard drive
causes suspicion, or at least throws down the gauntlet. If you were
looking for illegal stuff and you ran into a file that looked like
wouldn’t you immediately need to know what it said? It could be a conspiracy! It could be a list of child pornographers! It could be a copyrighted magazine article! It could be a bootleg Led Zepplin video!
So I figure the best solution is to encode your files rather than
encrypt them, so that you could hide your stuff in plain sight. If
agents don’t know something is encrypted and it looks innocuous, they
won’t compel you to give them the key. “Here’s your laptop, ma’am.
Sorry for the inconvenience.”
That’s the wrong answer. The solution isn’t to try to hide the
fact that you’re taking your own/your employer’s privace seriously. The answer is to make encryption so absolutely routine that (A) finding encrypted files on a computer is so common and routine that it can’t be used as a distinguishing characteristic to allow them to justify confiscating your computer, and (B) to make it so incredibly painful and laborious for them to get any data off of a computer that they give up.
The first part of instructions for how to do this are below.