Travel group: Corporate data at risk from laptop searches

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives warns of potential security breaches

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) is warning its members to limit the amount of proprietary business information they carry on laptops and other electronic devices because of fears that government agents can seize that data at US border crossings.

The group is worried that corporate information could be downloaded by agents, leading to potential security breaches and the exposure of data that is supposed to be private. Among the devices that could be searched by border agents are cell phones, PDAs, digital cameras and USB storage devices.

The warning follows a recent ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that basically upheld the right of US Customs officials to search laptops and other electronic devices at US borders without reasonable cause or suspicion.

The Appeals Court decision involved an individual who was arrested in 2005 on charges of child pornography after a warrantless search of his computer by customs officers at Los Angeles International Airport. A District Court judge had previously ruled that the evidence presented by the prosecution should be suppressed because it was gained via an unreasonable search. That decision was overturned later.

Susan Gurley, executive director of the ACTE, said the Appeals Court's decision means that corporate travelers need to pay close attention to the kind of information they carry on their business laptops during international travel.

"Right now, the US customs department has the right to look at the data on your computer and download that data if they want to," Gurley said. "The Ninth Circuit held that it is within the purview of the US government to look at or download anything" on laptops and other electronic devices at the border, she said.

Companies need to review their policies to see if such searches will cause privacy problems for them or their customers, she said.

"For example, if you are carrying personnel information on your laptop, there are certain privacy violations that can ensue" if that data is accessed and downloaded as part of a border search, she said. Other kinds of sensitive and proprietary information -- including intellectual property -- can sometimes be exposed via such searches, she said.

Many companies, especially in Europe, are having compliance officers look at the broader implications of such searches and have begin curtailing the kind of information their executives can carry on their laptops when traveling to the US, she said.

According to Gurley, the biggest concern is the lack of information or policy guidance about such searches. Currently, companies don't know exactly what to do about data that might be accessed and downloaded during a border search.

"There may be some legitimate reasons for wanting to look at the data" on a traveler's electronic device, Gurley said. "But what are the parameters for such searches? Once they have the information, what do they do with it? What are the policies for retention and for data destruction? This shouldn't be such a hidden secret."

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