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I'll be traveling to the UK (London) on a study abroad in the spring and will be bring my laptop for school and intern purposes. I was just curious what/if any rights UK customs has to search laptops at the border, and how common laptop seizure and search is when returning to the good old U.S.A.

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May be interesting: nytimes.com/2008/01/07/us/… AFAIK the UK (and indeed pretty much every government in the world) has the right to search your computer for whatever reason when entering the country. Given the amount of laptops that pass through airports every day though, it is extremely unlikely that they would scan yours randomly, unless you gave them some suspicion. –  victoriah Nov 8 '11 at 17:25
    
Last time my company instructed that I should able to remove my laptop hardisk and put it back once I cleared the immigration. :) –  Rudy Gunawan Nov 9 '11 at 3:14
    
@RudyGunawan But you would still carry it with you as well? It does not seem to make much sense. Having sensitive data online possibly would however. –  Relaxed Oct 16 '13 at 13:57
    
I agree that it does not make sense. however that company is one of the largest IT company and that was the policy. Putting data online is another option, but you can't put everything online ( mobile broadband is expensive ) –  Rudy Gunawan Oct 17 '13 at 3:47

4 Answers 4

From the US Customs and Border patrol website:

As Secretary Chertoff noted in a recent op-ed, "Of the approximately 400 million travelers who entered the country last year, only a tiny percentage were referred to secondary baggage inspection…[and] of those, only a fraction had electronic devices that may have been checked."

So, (if they are being truthful), having your laptop seized and searched is not at all common. I think it is very unlikely unless you either gave them some cause for suspicion, or if they were already tracking you before you entered the US (i.e. you were already on some kind of watchlist).

The UK can indeed take your laptop and search it (like any other country can), and can have you prosecuted if you fail to decrypt your encrypted files for them.

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And if I forgot password? Or I don't know it. –  Andrey Nov 15 '11 at 10:50
    
I suspect that would be a pretty difficult situation for you. –  victoriah Nov 15 '11 at 13:52
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@Andrey It's better not to have files identifiable as encrypted archives. TrueCrypt files cannot be identified by contents, so change the extension to someting else (e.g. .dat or .tmp). –  dbkk Sep 20 '12 at 17:13
    
This sounds frightening. Big brother watches you. –  user626528 May 9 at 18:06

In theory you can be jailed for up to two years for failing to provide the key for an encrypted file on a laptop. However, as far as I know, this law has never been used.

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Sure it has, just not very often. From Wikipedia... "at least three people have been prosecuted and convicted for refusing to surrender their encryption keys" –  Molomby Sep 27 '12 at 5:50

I would say I've carried a laptop into the US at least 20 times in the last ~15 years. Never once has any customs official so much as laid eyes on the machine, let alone looked at what's on it.

However, I've never been coming in from a sex tourism country and I've always been with my wife at the time. My understanding is that if I were returning alone from places like Thailand that it might draw more scrutiny.

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Correct. My laptop has been checked on return from Thailand, and they patiently went through most of my boring travel snaps. –  dbkk Sep 20 '12 at 17:15

All countries demand the right to search possessions brought into the county, including electronic devices. Where encrypted storage devices are concerned many countries can also demand the owner provide customs with any necessary decryption keys.

Wikipedia has a great entry on these key disclosure laws which covers the differences between the UK, USA and other countries. To quote...

United Kingdom

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), Part III, activated by ministerial order in October 2007, requires persons to supply decrypted information and/or keys to government representatives. Failure to disclose carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail.

And..

United States

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects witnesses from being forced to incriminate themselves, and there is currently no law regarding key disclosure in the United States.

However, the article goes on to list many cases in the US where defendants have been forced to surrender decryption keys regardless of this lack of legislation.

In practise though, as others in this thread have attested, these issues are very rarely a problem; the vast majority of laptops are never searched. Plus, if one did need to securely move sensitive data into a country it would be trivial to download it though an encrypted channel after arrival.

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Most of the laws mentioned in the Wikipedia article are about judicial proceedings and not really related to searches at the initiative of border guards. –  Relaxed May 9 at 18:54

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