Disassembled laptopTheRogueU.S. Customs and Border Protection types are notoriously grabby when it comes to electronic devices at the border. That is to say, if you have a widget, they like to see what's on it. Graduate student Pascal Abidor is suing the federales after an unfortunate run-in on his return from that notorious haven of french fries served with gravy and cheese known as Canada to our beloved United States. Abidor was detained for several hours after officials poked through his laptop and found photographs of Muslims. David House is also suing after a similar search triggered, apparently, by his support for Bradley Manning. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security's own in-house protector of all things civil rights-y and civil liberties-ish examined the policy of searching electronics at the border, and pronounced it good.

In a Civil Rights/Civil Liberties Impact Assessment of border searches of electronic devices, reviewing official Tamara Kessler writes (PDF):

The overall authority to conduct border searches without suspicion or warrant is clear and long-standing, and courts have not treated searches of electronic devices any differently than searches of other objects. We conclude that CBP’s and ICE’s current border search policies comply with the Fourth Amendment. We also conclude that imposing a requirement that officers have reasonable suspicion in order to conduct a border search of an electronic device would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefits. However, we do think that recording more information about why searches are performed would help managers and leadership supervise the use of border search authority, and this is what we recommended; CBP has agreed and has implemented this change beginning in FY2012.

The report also "did not find evidence that searches were prompted by the ethnicity of travelers" and that "the laptop border searches allowed under the ICE and CBP Directives do not violate travelers’ First Amendment rights."

In response to concerns over border agents' habit of retaining electronic devices annd searching them at their leisure, say over a span of months — a practice that drew a rebuke from a federal judge — Ms. Kessler writes, "[c]urrent policies ensure reasonable efforts at promptness and, accordingly, we do not believe that setting specific time limits is necessary."

Note that the Electronic Frontier Foundation offers a handy guide for safeguarding your data when crossing a border. You might consider TrueCrypt, which can encrypt a section of a hard drive without revealing the existence of that encrypted data.