News continues to worsen for business travelers carrying sensitive information. In a troubling ruling by the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) can continue its practice of warrantless searches through computer data held by US citizens and foreigners alike. With no cause or suspicion, the CBP may inspect, copy or seize data devices carried by anyone returning to the US. I'm not convinced that passive compliance is the best response to this situation.
The CBP put its best nonlinear thinkers to work on the case, convincing the court that the doctrine of routine border inspections to "prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering [the US]" can rightly be served by searches for expressive thought and personal communication. In keeping with a common pattern in which privacy rights are eroded, the CBP used a child porn suspect as a test case -- in which there was probable cause and reasonable suspicion based on other factors -- to justify why probable cause and reasonable suspicion would be unnecessary for the entire traveling populace.
The reaction has been swift and overwhelmingly negative; even the notoriously invasive US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) posted a message online distancing itself from the CBP's actions. Business people in border states and working abroad, as well as casual travelers, now have ample reason to be nervous about taking a laptop, media player or even mobile phone through a US border inspection. Not surprisingly, advice on how to avoid or defeat the inspections is popping up all over the Internet.
There's a risk the CBP has seriously overreached with this new power, and the public response reminds me of the day I learned the true meaning of teamwork. In the late '90s at a large mobile phone carrier, there had been a series of layoffs, serial shuffling of CEOs and cost-cutting measures that included more-intrusive tracking of employee performance. (As the dot-com bubble was expanding, the telecom world was leaking air and fluids.)
In the midst of empty cube farms and gulag-appropriate morale, the entire network operations team showed up one morning dressed to the nines. Gone were the geek T-shirts and suspenders, ratty blouses and jeans, hair ties and high-tops, and other tribal markings of serious network administrators. Throughout the network operations center and nearby offices, there were crisp suits or skirts, nice ties, pressed shirts and polished shoes -- more than a dozen staffers, and every single one was impeccable.
When asked, the lead admin simply said the team wanted to clean up its act, since the company was trying to work more efficiently and professionally. I didn't buy it, and neither did my director. After lunch, the director pressed the operations lead about what was going on, and kept at it.
Finally, the team lead relented: "One of us has a job interview."