Guest Column: On TSA Laptop Searches

Sooner or later, most gamers will face the dreaded scenario of having to leave their desktop PC’s and consoles behind and suffer through the misery of modern air travel.

Domestic travelers have become familiar with intrusions and searches at Transportation Security Administration security checkpoints. But as the ACLU has recently discovered, international travelers are not only having their laptops seized and searched by Customs and Border Protection, but agents are making copies of files and giving them to third-party agencies. The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the government, which turned over hundreds of pages of documents revealing startling information about how much access—and how little oversight—agents have to your gaming laptops when you travel.

For instance, over a period of nine months, CBP agents searched over 1,500 devices, including laptops, thumb drives, cell phones, and DVDs. Last year, agents transferred 282 files from these devices to third-parties. Under current policy, CBP is not required to justify the searches. Interestingly, of those files, only four were justified under "national security" concerns, and apparently encrypted files were sent to unknown agencies for "translation/decryption".

Several spreadsheets containing summaries of the data (as well as detailed information on each incident, if you’re so inclined) are available from the ACLU; a further list of documents and correspondence released from CBP can be found here.

Dan Rosenthal is a legal analyst for the games industry.

GP: Dan offers a unique vantage point to a lot of the topics we talk about here and it’s our hope that he’ll contribute more pieces going forward. Please welcome him aboard!

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  1. sharpshooterbabe says:

    Welcome Dan! 🙂



    "It’s better to be hated for who you are, then be loved for who you are not." – Montgomery Gentry

  2. Neeneko says:

    That and you can be charged for not handing over your encryption keys.

    Encrypting your stuff in such a way that the authorities can not recover it is a seperate crime.

  3. lordlundar says:

    Pay attention to the ACTA treaty leaks. This is EXACTLY what they are doing and they want other countries to do the same. They want full access to your info and they want to go after you if they so much as THINK it MIGHT be illegal. You get no recourse. Don’t go simply on a gut feeling, do some research.

  4. Vinzent says:

    But the government has specialists and there doesn’t seem to be any time limit to how long they can hold your stuff, so encryption isn’t going to help you.

  5. Vinzent says:

    There hasn’t been a single terrorist caught from this TSA web as far as I know. They have caught a couple of people who have had child pornography on their computers. So this enactment really has nothing to do with terrorism. It’s really an excuse for illegal search and siezure.

  6. Grifter_tm says:

    How can they not prosecute if it is the thing they’re looking for? It says so on the first page.

  7. Shahab says:

    They aren’t going to prosecute you for having copyright songs on your ipod. They can’t prove if you are entitled to the songs or not simply from seeing them on your ipod. People who get too alarmist about things make others take the real concerns less seriously.

  8. Shahab says:

    This is what whole disc encryption is for. Encrypt the disc, then also encrypt your important files, no one anywhere is getting into them anytime soon.

  9. Thomas McKenna says:

    The problem with quoting the Declaration of Independence is that it’s not a leagally binding document.  It was written 12 years before the USA was the USA.

    Also, the ammendments use the term "the People" (no real reason why capitals are used so often at the start of words in the constitution, it was just a style used at the time.  Much the same way Nouns in German have their first letter capitalized.) as short for "the People of the United States."  So while there is no explicit distinction between citizen and non-citizen written out, it’s clear that the written documents of the US and the rights of its people can be interpreted to be only for its people.

    It’s something I don’t agree with in practice, but the SCotUS has ruled on it in that fashion.  Check my link from the first post, and it will show in a few rulings that non-citizens don’t have the same protection under the 4th as citizens.  Doesn’t mean that it’s set in stone (the constitution is meant to be open for interpretation and elbow room), but that’s just the current definintion used right now based on precedent.

  10. chadachada321 says:

    Although the Declaration of Independence isn’t an official legal document, it very clearly states that ALL men are created equal, and ALL men are endowed with certain *unalienable* rights. Constitutionally, there is nothing that implies that non-citizens have less rights than citizens in regards to the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments.

    -Optimum est pati quod emendare non possis-It is best to endure what you cannot change-

  11. Thomas McKenna says:

    I don’t like it.  It seems wrong.  However, if the people being searched are non-permenant residents of the US (aka, not a citizen and aren’t living here long term), then constitutionally it seems like they don’t have constitutional protection in this case.  This is how it’s been ruled, but I think it’s crap and inconsistent.  Non-permenant residences still have the right to due process, the 5th ammendment, etc.  Saying that they have benefits of some parts of the Constitution but not others is inconsistent.  If they have constitutional rights, then they have rights.  If not, then they don’t and we become a country of xenophobes, shut off from the world.

    If citizens are also being searched (which I have a feeling is the case), then the TSA is violating constitutional law (surprise, surprise…nothing new).  Blanket searches are ok.  Non-justified search and seizure is unlawful.

  12. sharpshooterbabe says:

    I can’t wait for a terrorist to try smuggling a bomb aboard in his rectum.

    Well now the U.S.A. in 18 airports has full-body x-rays that take pictures of you w/your clothes on & saves that picture & files it. A lot of people are upset about that b/c of their privacy being invaded.


    "It’s better to be hated for who you are, then be loved for who you are not." – Montgomery Gentry

  13. Neeneko says:

    *shrug* I have more reason to fear drivers on cell phones then terrorists.

    Phobia is an irrational fear.  The US is gripped in a fear far disproportional to the actual danger presented.

  14. Nebelleron says:

    Yeah but here’s the thing. It is not justified, even somewhat. When’s the last time there was a terrorist car bombing, shooting, hostage taking, or anything even remotely like that on US soil? 

    The 9/11 attacks were years ago, and they cannot possibly be used to justify the years of terror suffered at the hands of the US government. Speaking as a foreigner who has tried to get into the US since then, it’s absolute madness. The United states, or north America in general, is one of the safest places in the world to be, and that’s not going to change unless the government keeps on its path of tyranny.

    Sure, something bad happened. I don’t mean to be insensitive to the people that were lost, but do you honestly think they would want to see their tragedy used as a fear mongering tactic just so that people will give up their civil liberties?

  15. Defenestrator says:

    So you’re okay with any potentially sensitive data being turned over to "unknown 3rd parties?"  So you’re okay with what officially amounts to a lack of due process and an illegal search and seizure?  Do files stored on a laptop computer or a portable data device constitute an immediate threat to the safety of the flight and those on board?

    While it’s one thing to be vigilant to prevent terrorism, we have given up too much under the guise of protecting ourselves.

    I can’t wait for a terrorist to try smuggling a bomb aboard in his rectum.  Will you approve of the full cavity searches that get implemented as yet another overreaction?

  16. Aliasalpha says:

    "Safely" and "in the cloud" are terms that should not go together. Unless you mean that your data is safe from this one specific violation

    Like "My child is safe from paedophiles because I just killed him". Aside from it defeating the purpose, it only exposes the poor kid to necrophiliacs. THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

  17. GamesLaw says:

    Thanks guys!

    Situations like this are why I use programs like dropbox or google docs to keep sensitive data off my laptop and safely in the cloud where CBP can’t get to it. For things I need to store locally, I invested in an Ironkey memory stick, which features military grade encryption, as well as automatic memory-wiping in case CBP tries to break in (it won’t mount until the password is entered, and after a very short number of incorrect attempts it will wipe the memory), as well as being nearly impossible to physically break into without destroying it.

    –Dan Rosenthal

  18. chadachada321 says:

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

    Seriously, fuck airline travel. I’m never traveling with electronic equipment again. (Actually, I might just never use a "public" airline again).

    -Optimum est pati quod emendare non possis-It is best to endure what you cannot change-

  19. hellfire7885 says:

    Welcome to the crew Dan.


    As to the article itself, well, as said ,those who sacrifice a little bit of freedom for a little bit of safety deserve neither

  20. ZippyDSMlee says:

    If you go anywhere…just UPS your sht there befor you leave…it might even cost less than paying to take it with you….

    Until lobbying is a hanging offense I choose anarchy! CP/IP laws should not effect the daily life of common people!

  21. gellymatos says:

    Hey, cut us some slack. While some of the tactics we have used are terrible, it’s not like the fear of terrorists isn’t somewhat justified.

  22. kagirinai says:

    Glad to have another contributer!

    With that out of the way — holy hell! I may have to ensure I never fly through the USA; or that I take the time to completely encrypt my data before I go. I work and develop from my laptop — I have confidential files and various sensitive information on it. It’s all locked up, I’m not worried about anyone getting it, but I’m *NOT* comfortable with any government agencies taking a hold of my data, encrypted or otherwise.

    The USA needs to get over it’s ridiculous terrorphobia.

  23. Craig R. says:

    I recall stories about this when it was happening. At the time, it seemed to be targeting foreigners who were coming into the US, more than anything else.

    I had not heard that this information was then also being handed out on a whim to unknown third-parties.

    This whole thing is completely disgusting.

  24. Shadow D. Darkman says:

    So it’s official now?

    Either way, welcome aboard, Dan!


    "A Chrono Trigger is anything that unleashes its will or desire to change history!" -Gaspar

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