iPhone and iPad

Smartphone & Laptop Searches: Know Your Rights

Matthew Hughes 14-08-2014

You’ve left the plane and collected your luggage, and the last thing you want to do is submit to a customs search. Getting your souvenirs and taxable items out is a hassle, but nothing like the stomach churning thought of handing over your digital fingerprint to border officials.


Do you know what your rights are when travelling overseas with a laptop, smartphone or hard drive?

Travelling With Data

Flights have never been this cheap. Even with rising fuel costs, it’s possible to zigzag across Europe and America for next to nothing, partially due to the rise of discount airlines like RyanAir and SouthWest Airlines.


Similarly, laptops have never been quite this portable. The rise of the affordable ultrabook What Is An Ultrabook & Can It Succeed? [Technology Explained] Remember when the word laptop described virtually every mobile computer on the market? The choices were certainly easier back then (because there was simply less choice available), but today there’s a far wider variety including... Read More and the obsolescence of optical media has made laptops cheaper, thinner, faster and thus easier to travel with. Many people never leave the country without their computers.

There are a lot of reasons why you might not want an airport security agent to rifle through your computer:

  • You might be traveling with privileged, confidential documents or files for whom you are personally responsible.
  •  Your laptop might hold personal files, photos or correspondence whom you would rather keep private due to them being of a sensitive or intimate nature.
  • You might just find the idea of someone wandering through your personal files and correspondence makes you incredibly uncomfortable. That’s not unreasonable.

When flying, we consent to put our laptops in separate x-ray bins for inspection. Likewise, depending on the routes we fly, we also consent to turn our phones and laptops on to prove they are genuine Flying to the US, Canada or UK? Here Are the New Rules Regarding Flying With Electronics Flying to the UK or US? Make sure your laptop and cell phone are sufficiently charged, as new, tighter security checks could see passengers potentially separated from their gadgets. Read More . But what about when the scrutiny our devices undergo reaches another level?

We’re going to explore what rights customs and TSA agents have to inspect your mobile devices and computers. First stop? The Great White North.

Flying To Canada

The laws surrounding what (and who) goes into Canada fall under the Customs Act. This permits employees working for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to stop and search anyone entering Canada from any port of entry, including the land borders with the United States, seaports and airports.



The Customs Act also gives CBSA officers the right to search your laptops, tablets and smartphones in the same way they can search your bags. And they don’t even need a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing. Want to learn more? Check out this privacy information sheet from the CBSA.

Flying To Australia

I’ve got some bad news for you. Australian customs have the right to inspect laptops and the contents of external hard-drives and removable media. They don’t need a warrant or a court-order, and they don’t need your permission.

As anyone who as ever flown to Australia will attest, as your flight starts to make its descent you’ll be given a boarding card asking you to declare what you are carrying in your luggage, and on your person as Australia has some of the strictest laws in the world on what can be taken into the country.



There are some things that you’ll be asked to declare that you might expect, such as food, fruit and untreated wood or other natural products. This is due to the country’s fragile ecosystem having been ravaged by non-native species in the past. One surprising thing you’ll have to declare is pornography. Although Australia is a liberal democracy with a number of progressive policies, they’ve got a number of restrictive laws on the books with respect to pornography.


If you are traveling into Australia with pornography or sexually explicit material, you will have to declare it. This also applies to homemade films and pictures. Failure to do so is an offense, and can result in legal action or a hefty fine.

And if you declare it, there’s a chance that some embarrassed young customs agent might be given the unenviable task of having to look through the darkest and most depraved recesses of your hard drive.


Flying To The United Kingdom

Glenn Greenwald’s Brazilian partner David Miranda was catching a flight to Rio de Janeiro from Berlin. It was a period when Greenwald was under immense public scrutiny, due to the then recent revelations by Edward Snowden about the depth to which the British and American security services were spying on Internet users Can You Escape Internet Surveillance Programs Like PRISM? Ever since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on PRISM, the NSA's no longer secret surveillance program, we know one thing with certainty: nothing that happens online can be considered private. Can you really escape the... Read More , as well as Snowden’s leak of tens of thousands of confidential documents to Greenwald and the Guardian newspaper.

And unfortunately for Miranda, he had a layover in London Heathrow.


He was detailed for nine hours under Schedule 7 of the UK’s broad-reaching Terrorism Act, 2000. This states that the person seized has to give the examining police officer any information in his possession the officer requests, as well as any artifacts of objects in the suspect’s possession. Any property seized must be returned after seven days.

His laptop and cell phone were seized, as well as other equipment. This was later challenged in the courts, although was found to be lawful. This is an extreme example, although not an isolated one. In 2013, Yulia Zamanskaya – a journalist working for the Voice Of Russia – had her laptop seized in Terminal 4 of Heathrow Airport due to containing material that was deemed to be terrorism-related.

Zamanskaya is a journalist working for a major Russian news publication, so reporting on terrorism is a significant part of her job. But what if you’re not a journalist? What if you’re just a sunburned tourist on your way back home from a beery beach vacation in Benidorm?

Police still have the right to inspect any devices at the border, due to the broad-ranging rules in the Terrorism Act, 2000. Indeed, each year sees 60,000 people have their devices inspected and the data stored therein duplicated and retained. The same laws which saw Miranda and Zamanskaya temporarily being separated from their laptops also apply to you.

Flying To The United States Of America

No surprises here: according to a 2008 ruling made in a federal court, customs agents at U.S. airports can inspect the contents of passengers’ laptop computers. They don’t even need any evidence to do so. The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco declared a computer to be no different to a suitcase, car or any other property subject to search at an international border.


The above ruling also applies to tablet computers and smartphones. If it switches on and you can store things on it, it’s fair game.

There have been numerous challenges to the TSA’s rights to search your electronic devices. The most recent one was brought by Pascal Abidor, whose laptop had undergone a deep forensic search when crossing the border from Canada in 2010. His challenge was summarily dismissed earlier this year.

Encryption Can’t Save You

You have no rights to resist an inspection. With this in mind, you might be tempted to resort to fully encrypting any mediums you travel with. We’ve previously written extensively about Truecrypt TrueCrypt User's Guide: Secure Your Private Files To really keep your data safe, you need to encrypt it. Not sure how to start? You need to read our TrueCrypt user manual by Lachlan Roy, and learn how to use TrueCrypt encryption software. Read More , and how it can help secure your hard drive.

Let’s be blunt: encrypting your laptop or smartphone to prevent airport security from inspecting it is at the very least foolish, and massively illegal at its very worst. This is due to most countries having laws which mandate the disclosure of encryption keys on demand. Although, there is one surprising exception.

Let’s start with Canada. There’s not really a single Canadian law surrounding key disclosure. However, there is a broad range of existing legislation that could compel a person to disclose their decryption keys. Feel like refusing? Well, that’s a little something called contempt of court, and can see you banged up for five years.


But what about Australia? According to the Cybercrime Act, 2001, magistrates can compel a person to provide a police officer with any decryption keys that they feel will unlock any evidential material. Failure to do so caries a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment.

Moving on to the UK, we’ve got the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, part III. This requires the disclosure of decrypted information or decryption keys to government representatives with a court order. If you fail to do so, you can expect a maximum of two years in jail.

Three people have been convicted for refusing to surrender their encryption keys, including a science enthusiast suffering from schizophrenia who had no prior criminal record, and only came to the attention of the authorities after sniffer dogs detected a model rocket he was importing from France.

The US is a bit confusing. Firstly, they’ve got quite a forward-thinking constitution which contains something called the Fifth Amendment. This protects people from being forced to incriminate themselves in a criminal trial.


In the US, the constitution reigns supreme. As a result, it’s incredibly hard to have any key disclosure laws that are effective, whilst being legal under constitutional law.

Despite that, there are some precedents where a court has ordered people to surrender their decryption keys, including a case from 2012 where a Colorado woman was forced to make her laptop readable to the authorities. Amusingly, less than one month later, another court in the element circuit (which covers Florida, Alabama and Georgia) declared that forcing someone to decrypt one’s laptop is a violation of the Fifth Amendment.

However, it’s worth adding that customs and TSA agents have the right to refuse you entry into the country (or at least hold you up for a long time at the airport) for the most spurious of reasons.

The Bottom Line

Whenever you fly abroad, you give your implicit consent for someone to inspect your belongings. The all-seeing rubber-glove of airport security can go through your phone, laptop or tablet, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Have you ever had your laptop or hard drive searched? How do you feel about the laws? Sound-off in the comments, below.

Photo Credit: My Passport (BryansBlog)Kryha-Chiffriermaschine, Kryha-Encryption Device (Ryan Somma),  Constitution in the National Archives (Mr.TinDC)Heathrow T3 (Timo Newton-Syms)Melbourne CBD at sunset (DocklandsTony)Reflections of Canada (Dennis Jarvis)ryanair invasion (Paolo Margari) 

Related topics: Encryption, Travel.

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  1. Colin James
    February 24, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    Happened to me yesterday flying home to Australia . and I wasn't happy at all . I am a frequent flyer and nothing like this has happened to me before.
    I had nothing to hide but still didn't like the thought of having all my files looked at by a over powered customs agent. I had sensitive business materials and personal data on those devices . My smartphone and laptop were searched. They force you to hand over passwords and you are not present at the search ! All I could think was Snowden! Who knows what they take off or leave behind on the devices ?
    Gross invasion of privicay . They need no reason to go through your stuff, no burden of proof or even have to explain why you were singled out . Apparently they have officers in foreign ports who may just be jealous your flying in first class and that's enough for this abuse of powers .

  2. Richard
    September 23, 2016 at 6:04 am

    This may be the law but it can also be bad politics, diplomacy, and tourisim. With social media today they should be aware how much fuss on can make at thier university and social media discouraging visiting said country and spending tourist dollars, I'll happily refuse on principle and have Visa/ MC reverse all travel charges by dispute with bank and have university newspaper write editorial about invasion of privacy. Furthermore blogging about the experience and sharing it on Facebook and Twitter won't help thier tourisim either, and of course somone else is doing this for you if detained.

  3. anna
    June 30, 2016 at 8:50 am

    It's simple you have no rights when comes to privacy.

    How can they access your email, Dropbox account etc without the relevant passwords anyway?

    Personally I won't go out the UK again as I don't have anything to hide but don't feel comfortable with someone going thro all my personal files etc on my phone or laptop.

  4. mo
    February 3, 2015 at 4:55 am

    It's all bullshit..........................George Orwell knew back then and it's happening now.
    PROPAGANDA continues to be fed to the stupid under-educated masses and they fall for it every time.
    God help us all.We have NO RIGHTS to privacy whatsoever.

  5. moonrock
    August 22, 2014 at 1:34 am

    Suppose you're transporting a PC, or any type of electronics that has empty space, such as a laptop without a hard drive. Will they let your laptop pass if you turn it on and it says it can't find a bootable drive? Come to think of it, there are many items that could have empty spaces. Detecting contraband or explosives in these is the job of the x-ray operator, so what's all this meshugana business with turning our devices on?

  6. moonrock
    August 21, 2014 at 1:44 am

    Suppose you're transporting a PC, or any type of electronics that has empty space, such as a laptop without a hard drive. Will they let your laptop pass if you turn it on and it says it can't find a bootable drive? Come to think of it, there are many items that could have empty spaces. Detecting contraband or explosives in these is the job of the x-ray operator, so what's all this meshugana business with turning our devices on?

  7. Ahmed K
    August 18, 2014 at 9:33 am

    Don't have any Molana /Priests numbers saved on your phone

  8. Pfly
    August 17, 2014 at 6:34 am

    Does customs have the right to inspect your luggage? If an inspector wishes to examine my laptop, tablet or smartphone, I have no problem with this.

  9. Gavin
    August 16, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    My laptop, tablet and phone have absolutely nothing on them. Zip. Nada, other than applications and widgts. I access everything from the cloud. Dropbox, Google Drive and whatever Micrrosoft calls theirs this week. I have absolutely none of the apps to access any of those on any device when I travel. I get whatever I need from them on line (there are lots of places where you can access the internet and download stuff after crossing a border - unless it's the North Korean border - if you are sojourning to the interwebby-free hinterlands) and I put them back when I'm finished. I also clean up after myself, if you get my drift. I don't have to disclose my passwords because nobody is aware that I have passwords. Getting nabbed for "contraband documents" and having to disclose encryption keys for sensitive information is, to use my granddaughter's favourite phrase, "so 2010". I'm 66. The fact that peopleseveral decades younger than me are actually discussing this in 2014 boggles the mind. Any customs agent, anywhere, is welcome to examine my stuff until his/her eyes cross. There ain't nuthin' there! Fill yer boots!

    • Rural Juror
      March 25, 2017 at 7:05 pm

      You are worried about them violating your privacy, but you keep your stuff online on someone else's computer while acting smug about it. The irony is astounding.

  10. Beau
    August 16, 2014 at 8:59 pm

    The Book George Orwell wrote has came to bear fruit! How soon before we have computer chips in stalled in us for tracking!!!

  11. dragonmouth
    August 16, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    Insisting on your rights and questioning the rights of the searchers could be considered a suspicious activity. Their premise is that if you have nothing to hide, then you shouldn't mind a search, reasonable or otherwise. At the very least insisting on your rights annoys the functionaries. They can and probably will respond by annoying you by pulling you aside for a more thorough search and a chit-chat with a specialist in interogation.

  12. Andy
    August 16, 2014 at 10:35 am

    Has bdstx4 taken over this site? If he has, I won't be reading it again. What Boll..cks!!

  13. qwertinsky
    August 16, 2014 at 4:36 am

    Encrypt your "sensitive" data files and then rename them something innocent.

  14. bdstx4
    August 16, 2014 at 12:26 am

    I guess it should be stated that Countries pass these laws and powers based
    on the "Shotgun Effect". Meaning details do not ever come out or get law legistature
    passed. So do not get caught in the mess to begin with.

    If you get out of hand and raise your voice to these people at these checkpoints, then they are
    perfectly within their power to put you and all travelers with in jail for a few days while everything is sorted out. Solely on that lower wage person you are dealing with.

    Don't let this happen to you.

  15. bdstx4
    August 16, 2014 at 12:12 am

    Best advice real world traveling International with devices.

    Arrange in advance to Rent devices like phones and tablets. Do no carry your personal phones
    or tablets with you. If you do carry these your own personal devices, then any encryption is removed before hand, and everything data and app wise is subject to inspection. Period.

    If you can afford to travel Internationally, then you can afford to arrange and pay for what I
    am discussing. If you can be a person who wants to assert "their rights", the.n I do not want
    to be behind you in line. That means you are delaying my travel.

    And on these rented devices you get, put or download the minimum. You are supposed to be on vacation usually.

    Be considerate of the travelers behind you.

    • ron
      August 17, 2014 at 5:03 pm

      Renting may not be the way to go. Then you are using someone else's hardware and you have no idea of what software (or hardware) "spy" devices are installed. Some countries make spying on corporate visitors a "national pastime" or national priority.

      At the very least, if you are renting/borrowing a computer you should use a bootable CD/DVD to run your own OS and apps that you know are "clean".

      Otherwise, I agree with the "clean install" approach for computers and smart phones. Wipe your FULL HD to completely remove all sensitive personal and corporate files (and of course any "illegal" content like Pr0n) then re-install the OS and applications.

      And of course, repeat the full clean AFTER you get home. (naturally you made an IMAGE COPY BACKUP, so the full "install" process is not required!) Especially if you are traveling for business reasons you have no idea what malware may have been installed at your destination,

      SO, NUKE that machine, and start clean when you get home!

  16. bdstx4
    August 16, 2014 at 12:00 am

    In the real world, you cannot argue or contest policy when traveling international.
    This article has already told you your device is subject to seizure by any official without
    any specific reason. What the article did not state is they do not have to ever give the device
    back to you, nor reimburse you ever for it Suspicion is enough to confiscate. These are not
    people to get in a argument with. You will lose every time. Justified or not. They are not policy
    makers. They have no feedback to policy makers. Regardless of what they may tell you, and in
    many cases they want to be true, but it is fiction. Any person that searches or questions you
    at the "gate" has no input or control what happens. Don't ask for that.

  17. Jupiter's L
    August 15, 2014 at 11:52 pm

    Would have liked to have seen some of the statements made here backed up by excerpts from the legislation, or in the least the laws from which they are based. The "big secret" is that people never check legislation as it is written rather strangely and sheepishly we live our lives relying on information like this, which is meant to cause some sensation. Please note, I'm not saying the article is inaccurate or misleading I haven't checked myself. I don't travel enough to make it worth my time. However, I have been recently been stopped (3 times since November 2013) by the police whilst walking home in country lanes - I live in a quiet village - so I checked the law in regards to these encounters and I found that the police don't know the law. Fact is that a tradition where the citizens don't know the law that safeguards their rights and the police don't know the law - their reason to exist - and abuse their position.

    • ILikeCannard
      August 16, 2014 at 6:32 pm

      If you are just walking and get stopped and don't care to chat with a cop just ask if you are free to go, keep repeating that until LEO gives up with a yes, then just walk.

      Youtube search for Flex your rights and Never get busted videos

  18. bdstx4
    August 15, 2014 at 11:50 pm

    This is a good article but left out many real world advice.

  19. Godel
    August 15, 2014 at 11:49 pm

    Don't forget the "Plausible Deniability" aspect of a hidden volume in TrueCrypt 7.1a. The Feds can force you to unlock the primary TrueCrypt volume, but no one can detect if a hidden volume even exists at all.

    It's probably best to keep your secret stuff encrypted in the cloud, and only download it when you get to your destination. Have no record of your web email address and password or cloud account on your computer, just keep those details in memory.

  20. Rolls Canardly
    August 15, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    Traveling is where my little Chromebook really shines - I do a complete "powerwash" before traveling. The computer is then factory-fresh, with absolutely no personal stuff on it whatsoever.

    After passing through customs, I can retrieve any files, docs, etc from my home server. Likewise, before returning home, any personal stuff I may have put on the Chromebook is uploaded to my home server, then I wipe the machine again with the built-in powerwash.

    • bdstx4
      August 16, 2014 at 12:32 am

      Most people are not willing or do not have the capabilities to "wipe" then reinstall
      everything. Or they have the knowledge but not the privileges to start over. My Users do
      not have the capabilities or privileges you imply.

  21. T
    August 15, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    I plan to board a plane without carrying any type of electronic device whatsoever.

    • RealNeil
      August 15, 2014 at 11:50 pm

      "I plan to board a plane without carrying any type of electronic device whatsoever."

      That's probably suspect behavior in this day and age.

    • dragonmouth
      August 16, 2014 at 8:34 pm

      Oh My Gawd!!!
      How can you even contemplate being without you electronic gizmos for even 5 minutes?! Aren't you going to feel and disoriented and anxious without being connected 24/7?! :-)

    • dragonmouth
      August 16, 2014 at 8:37 pm

      "That’s probably suspect behavior in this day and age."
      Only if your underwear is lumpy in the wrong places and your shoe heels are soft and deformed.

  22. Anonymous
    August 15, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    "Smartphone & Laptop Searches: Know Your Rights" ... "and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it." So, in other words, people don't have any rights. A) Kind of a misleading title (implying that we have rights to know) B) Why is this a surprise to anyone? Not sure this topic warranted an article as it had absolutely zero information.

  23. P.f. B
    August 15, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    Law enforcement organizations generally have no rights at all. What they have is legal authority. This is a fine distinction to be sure, and the wording obviously varies from government to government. (Also, I am not a lawyer.) But generally, individual human beings have rights, while organizations have power and/or authority.

    In this case, some organizations may have a wee bit more than they need.

  24. Xarin
    August 15, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Please don't just "save it in the cloud" all your doing is giving a different person the ability to look at your data (see PRISM/other Snowden revelations). If you really need to have a way to get to your data in anouther country you should set up your own fileserver, and tunnel though ssh. Take any computer you have extra and load something like xubuntu or lubuntu or some low resourse lightweight distro on the computer and set up a ssh server.

    • lmn
      August 15, 2014 at 7:41 pm

      Thank you for this idea Xarin -

      Yes: bypassing Bluffdale UT (& associated subcontractors), if possible, is the way to move one's data about.

    • ME
      August 20, 2014 at 7:12 pm

      Very interesting Xarin. Could you link me to a tutorial on this? Would just look it up but Googling randomly for security advice doesn't sound secure.

  25. Robb Thompson
    August 15, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    I love how I see so many "What happens if I did this?" questions.

    Come on, people! How about if you use your head before you ask these questions?

    These searches are intended to find things that are illegal to bring into, take out of, or possess in those countries. Nation X is not going to aggressively pursue a Nation Y copyright infringement, unless it is illegal to either have Nation Y materials in the first place, or to have or transport any illegal copyrighted content in Nation X. It goes back to content, and the rules of that country for what is and is not allowed.

    But if you really have to ask a "What about this situation" question, then you've probably already answered your own question.

  26. Ahmad Shawki
    August 15, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    If you are concerned that much, you can leave all your documents and other stuff in the cloud.
    There are tons of those for free and some are for a very low price. You can get any of them, even for a month or so until you finish your travels. Just after uploading everything, don't forget to remove the sync program and all the traces as much as you can.

    • lmn
      August 15, 2014 at 7:10 pm

      Hoping this doesn't come across as impolite (or impolitic) but isn't 'putting stuff in the cloud' akin to just giving it to the govt. of the U.S. and its current friends ...

      ... before being asked told to do so?

    • Ahmad Shawki
      August 15, 2014 at 7:34 pm

      Well, I can't argue with that. But in the cloud, you can have any identity that is not related physically to you.
      But then again, I don't think you can hide yourself from them by getting a fake name.
      So, moral of the story is; if they wanna get you, they ARE gonna get you ;-)

  27. D Harries
    August 15, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    Leave everything in the cloud

  28. None of your concern.
    August 15, 2014 at 11:57 am

    Hmm what happens if you take out your harddrive and put it in your bag, would they make you put it back in?

    • Daniel E
      August 15, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      Probably. In the same way that they could inspect a truly removable drive

      • Colin James
        February 24, 2017 at 8:24 pm

        Yes they asked me for hard drives as well

  29. dragonmouth
    August 15, 2014 at 11:32 am

    First of all, Linux cannot be pirated. It comes for free.

    As for the rest, you and your 'puter are toast.

    • James
      August 15, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      Well, yes and no... Linux is generally open source and free but there are proprietary software and services as well...

      Along with distributions specifically made for pirating that could at the very least raise red flags about what else you may have on your drives...

      Though, the vast majority of distros are free and clear... Just pointing out there are some rare exemptions and other factors to consider...

  30. Me
    August 15, 2014 at 6:53 am

    Yes, what happens in the case you have both Linux and Windows pirrated installed, plus other media like movies, music, software from the torrents???!!!

  31. Anthony
    August 15, 2014 at 3:09 am

    What is that Kryha-Chiffriermaschine Standard Model thing, and what language is it written?

    • Norbert L
      August 15, 2014 at 3:52 pm

      It is "patented in all cultured countries" (and got a/the "State Prize") --- and is labeled in German.

  32. Gerald McGrath
    August 15, 2014 at 2:56 am

    Set up a linux firewall at home and use ssh tunneling

  33. Jack White
    August 14, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    OMG did he really just ask that ???

    Did U LEGALY obtain said torrents? , is it Open source?? those 2 little questions might give U guidance and in this day and age torrents are looked down upon so if its copyrighted material yeah its badI'd RUn a magnet on your laptop and use Thermite just ot make sure U got it all (evidence) *evil grin*

    ok enough fun yeah torrents not a good idea @ ports of entry

  34. Amrit K
    August 14, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    What if I have downloaded too many things from torrents?
    Would I be in trouble or not?
    How do they search so many data?

    • Mark Hansen
      August 16, 2014 at 7:25 pm

      I think most customs officers are mainly on the lookout for dangerous activity. Weapons, explosives and potential terrorists. Unless you have plans lying out on your desktop on how to build a bomb or blueprints of government buildings, you're most likely safe from even receiving a single question.

      Also, the working class is unsurprisingly less caring about copyright laws than the people owning the rights.