Laptop flying rules you may not know

A TSA officer reads the X-ray of a laptop at BWI Airport.

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: We've seen beefed up security at airports since the Christmas incident aboard a U.S.-bound plane. But there's one security measure that's been in the books for a while now. Officers can still search and even confiscate your laptop at the airport or when you cross the border. Alisa Roth reports a lot of people -- and a lot of companies -- don't know that.


Alisa Roth: Most of the time, having your bags searched at customs isn't a very big deal. But flipping through files on your laptop or scrolling through contacts on your smart phone? For a lot of people, there's so much personal or corporate information on those devices, that's more like having the government poke through their desk drawers.

Since at least 2008, the government has allowed border agents and other officials to search the contents of laptops, smart phones, even MP3 players -- in fact any kind of electronic equipment.

Larry Schwartztol is an attorney. He was part of a team at the ACLU that's been fighting the rule.

Larry Schwartztol: The potential invasiveness of these searches is on an order of magnitude greater than the traditional border searches of luggage.

Schwartztol says the rule violates the right to privacy. For one thing, the officer can search your device, even if he doesn't think you've done anything wrong. And he or she can confiscate your stuff indefinitely -- and copy everything on it.

You'd think that corporate executives would be freaking out about potential security leaks. But Richard Crum says most companies don't seem to know the rule exists. He's president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. He says the costs to businesses could be substantial.

Richard Crum: Depending on the amount of time, the delay of a deal, maybe not having critical business information that you need in order to conduct your business. It could be quite an enormous cost to individuals and to the businesses that they work for.

It could be companies just don't think there's much of a problem. The government says it's only seized around a thousand laptops so far.

Crum says companies generally won't talk about their experience, because they don't want to call attention to themselves or admit to the stigma of having one of their laptops confiscated. But companies stand to lose a lot more than face.

Vanessa Sciarra works in the customs division of the law firm Holland and Knight. She says once the government gets hold of proprietary information, there's no way to know what might happen to it.

Vanessa Sciarra: It's more of a concern about the fact that if the laptop has sensitive company material on it, do we really want U.S. enforcement border officials looking at that and asking questions.

Sciarra says she tells clients to travel without a computer -- or one that has nothing on it -- and access the data you need once you're at your destination. Which is what critics say a terrorists could do, too.

I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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