Be aware: Electronics can be seized at customs

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Are you traveling internationally with time-sensitive—or just sensitive—information? It’s a good idea to email or send a copy on ahead of you. For several years U.S. customs officials have been inspecting the contents of electronic devices such as computers, digital cameras, and phones at the border, in some cases keeping them for several weeks before returning them to their owner.

Journalist Bill Hogan, for instance, had an old laptop of his taken for two weeks when he landed in Washington, D.C., after a trip to Germany. "It's not an inspection. It's a seizure," he told the L.A. Times. "What do they do with it? I assume they just copy everything."

In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that at border crossings, the government does not require a search warrant for random searches of luggage. There is more protection against a strip search, which requires "probable suspicion," than there is for examining the contents of a laptop.

Federal hearings are underway that may result in changing the way Customs goes about its job, but in the meantime it's worth keeping in mind that anything electronic could conceivably be searched—and seized for a time—when re-entering the country.

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[Editor's note: We've corrected a spelling error above.]

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