Small business people don’t travel without laptops. On July 24, 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided that US Customs and Border Patrol Officers had the right to search and seize a person’s laptop computer, computer discs and other electronic media (iPods and more). Personal and proprietary data is at risk, as is your notebook itself (some are not returned). The EFF has recently filed a suit demanding that Homeland Security disclose information on why it chooses to inspect some laptops and other electronic devices at the borders. On the government side is the argument that these search and seizures are aimed at and are helping prevent child pornography.

Most astounding to laptop owners is that the number of searches is increasing but intelligible reasons for the searches remains almost nil. If your machine is searched, expect no justification or details on what they were looking for or what they downloaded. Rummaging through a computer’s hard drive, the government says, is no different than looking through a suitcase.

According to ComputerWorld, border agents need no evidence to seize your notebook computer, can search anything and can keep your machine for days or weeks or more. How can a small business owner who likely keeps a lifetime of work on a notebook travel safely anymore?

First Line of Defense

  1. Clean the cache. Before every trip, be sure to delete all your temporary Internet files and cookies. You can set your browser to delete them after every session but checking temp files is a good follow-up.
  2. Learn from history. Change your browser settings to delete your browsing history every day. Chances are your kids do this on your home computer just so you can’t easily tell where they’re browsing.
  3. Nuke the IM logs. If you use IM (Instant Messaging), change the options so that there are no logs of conversations. Stop logging in AIM.
  4. Don’t make it too easy. Change the preference on your start menu so your most recent documents are not listed in the flyout menu. (How to: right click the start menu and choose “properties”).
  5. Don’t store your passwords. Yes, it’s inconvenient as all get-out to be out of town without embedded passwords. Unless you want your online email to be fair game, delete all your saved passwords. At this rate, they’re probably safer on a piece of paper.
  6. Really delete files. Deleted files can be recovered unless they are really deleted. Dragging them to the Recycle Bin doesn’t qualify as “really” deleting and they can be recovered (it’s not even hard). Free Windows utilities here and here to permanently delete files. (Let’s be really careful with those registry cleaners, y’hear?)

Extreme Notebook Makeover

  1. Traveling laptop. Consider purchasing a second, less expensive laptop. Don’t keep any confidential of personal information on it. Instead, build a VPN to your company server or home computer. Yes, it will slow things down if your hotel Internet is sluggish, but it will safeguard your data. Configure a Windows VPN in XP
  2. Image your computer. Create an image of your notebook on an external drive and then format your notebook before traveling. When you return, you can restore the image. Free imaging downloads here and here. Truly a PITA (pain in the …) but these are extreme solutions.
  3. Encryption doesn’t count. You can be forced to give up your password and/or have your machine confiscated. The government doesn’t do well with your trying to hide behind encrypted data. PGP is great but a court will force you to give up the key.
  4. Unbookmark. I don’t know how I would log into all my online accounts to manage servers, antispam services, the admin area of the help desk and more without my bookmarks, but consider moving them to a Flash key (no, that’s not safe either, but get one that doesn’t look like a USB drive) or put them online on a page whose URL you can remember.
  5. Work online. Get a password-protected Web page to store certain information you need but don’t want to carry with you. Is it 100% safe? Of course not. But it’s an extreme alternative.

What can you do? Encourage the government to disclose its policies on the contents of electronic devices. Support EFF’s efforts to protect your rights, your personal data and your proprietary business property.