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I've read stories about border officials searching laptops when crossing the border in one direction or the other. Does this really happen, typically speaking?

As a US citizen, can I be forced to give them my laptop's password for any/no reason? I don't believe they are allowed to deny entry to the US to a US citizen? ....but who knows these days?

Canada can deny me entry for any reason, so that's fine. But in practice, does this even happen in either crossing direction?

EDIT - I've now made the trip. They didn't so much as glance in the direction of my laptop. My biggest issue turned out to be lack of international wireless data service!

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Many companies have a policy that there should be no sensitive information whatsoever on a computer when crossing the border. After you have crossed the border you can download whatever information you need. You might consider following this method. –  DJClayworth May 24 '12 at 13:03
    
This is what I'd rather avoid, but it seems like the only solution to avoid my business data being fed to who-knows-who. –  Ian May 24 '12 at 17:25
    
See DHS Reveals Policies For Searching Laptops At The Border: Anything Goes, And Think Tank Says DHS Should Stop Laptop Border Searches explains why it makes no sense for them to be allowed to search laptops at border crossings. –  ikegami May 24 '12 at 20:02
    
"have a policy that there should be no sensitive information whatsoever on a computer when crossing the border" -> How can a CBP guard ever come to know what is sensitive information ? –  happybuddha Jan 1 at 13:40

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Yes, U.S. Customs and Border Protection can and does search electronic devices entering the country. No, it does not matter if the device belongs to a US citizen or not. There have been court cases about this practice, but so far the courts have decided it does not constitute unreasonable search and seizure since the searches occur before the traveler has entered the country, they are happening “outside” of the USA and probable cause does not apply.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents encountered more than 221 million travelers at U.S. ports of entry and performed about 1,000 laptop searches. Of this number, 46 were considered "in-depth," meaning the agents examined individual files.

Source: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/09/11/TRN819IUSU.DTL

It's not clear if you would be forced to give a password during a laptop search, but it seems likely that not doing so could be used as grounds for seizure of the laptop or denying entry to a non US citizen.

EDIT: Edited to be clearer that US citizens cannot be denied entry into the US as pointed out by @littleadv.

EDIT December 2013 court case finds against EFF: https://www.aclu.org/national-security-technology-and-liberty/court-rules-no-suspicion-needed-laptop-searches-border

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US Citizen cannot be denied entry. Period. While it may be possible, according to the article you linked to, to search, it is NOT possible to deny entry. –  littleadv May 24 '12 at 16:39
    
Perhaps you cannot be denied entry, but you are subject to punishment - including imprisonment - if you attempt to import certain materials, physical or electronic. –  SigueSigueBen May 24 '12 at 17:13
    
@SigueSigueBen that has nothing to do with the OP's question:) If you break the law you get punished, but not without due process. Non-citizens can simply be not allowed entry and sent back home. Citizens that break customs rules will be taken to court. –  littleadv May 24 '12 at 17:21
    
@littleadv is correct. The US has obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that requires it to allow the right of return to any citizen. Interestingly, the USA has been accused of violating these treaties by putting Americans living abroad on the no-fly list effectively preventing them from coming home, but without technically denying them entry. An example: papersplease.org/wp/2011/01/06/… –  user27478 May 24 '12 at 19:52
    
@littleadv The OP's question is "US and Canada Border Crossing and Computer Privacy: What do I need to know?" and I think that falls into the "you need to know" category! –  SigueSigueBen May 24 '12 at 20:28

I know that for security reasons, they ask to turn the laptop on and have it running in front of them. I know it happens.

I know that they've asked for passwords from non-US citizens, and I've heard about cases where the immigration officers denied entry to tourists based on what they've found on their laptops.

But Apparently, as shown in the comments, even when you're a US citizen, to the best of my knowledge they cannot they can search your laptop (i.e.: require the password) without a warrant.

As a US citizen, you cannot be denied entry to the US.

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Are you sure that normal laws apply at customs? Normally, a police officer can not conduct a physical search of you or your belongings without a warrant or probable cause, but this does not apply at a border crossing. My impression was that there is no expectation of privacy when you are at a US border and that searches (including those of computer equipment) are perfectly legal. This goes for US and non-US citizens. –  SigueSigueBen May 24 '12 at 1:07
    
But they can take away your laptop if you don't provide the information that they want. Am I mistaken in saying that normal constitutional rights do not apply at borders (even for US citizens)? –  SigueSigueBen May 24 '12 at 3:24
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I am not familiar with the details in US law, but most countries regulate specific situations, in which constitutional rights must be waived, common travel-related situations being border crossings and airport security checks. The legal understanding in the US is probably, that crossing the US border by any person implies that the person consent to a search. Denying a customs officer to search the content of a computer is IMHO similar to not unlocking a brought suit case. In both cases I would expect that the officer can seize the container (laptop or suit case) and/or penalize the person. –  Tor-Einar Jarnbjo May 24 '12 at 11:49
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Not sure why this answer was accepted, since it is wrong. This article states clearly that border agents can search anyone, including US citizens, and including laptops, without a warrant. While there are still some ongoing legal challenges, all the decisions so far have come down in favour of the searches. –  DJClayworth May 24 '12 at 13:00
    
@DJClayworth Usually I would agree with you, but on this site, its pretty common for wrong answers to be accepted. I remember you downvoting my perfectly reasonable answer, yet upvoting another one, factually incorrect, that has been accepted. Then you said my answer is crazy. So why are you surprised now? Anyway, corrected it to reflect the new information. –  littleadv May 24 '12 at 16:40

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