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Can TSA Copy Your Laptop Hard Drive and Search Your Files?

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Friday, January 22, 2010
computer

I read comments every now and then about how TSA officers at checkpoint and baggage locations can search the files on your laptop and can also confiscate your computer and copy your hard drive.

This is not true. In fact, we blogged about it back in February of 2008.

Our officers might visually inspect your laptop and perform an explosives trace detection test , but that’s it. Our officers don’t even turn computers on during inspection.

So where are the reports coming from? They’re coming from people who have had their laptops searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). For more details on CBP’s mission, check out this post from the recently retired Deputy Commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Jayson Ahern.

So where is the confusion taking place? Well, many passengers often confuse CBP with TSA. Why? They have uniforms with the Department of Homeland Security patch and some people automatically assume they are TSA officers since they’re working in an airport capacity. TSA and CBP officers have different uniforms. The CBP uniform is navy blue , while the TSA uniform is more of a royal blue . You will only interact with CBP when you’re coming into the country.

 

Thanks,

 

Blogger Bob
TSA Blog Team

Comments

Submitted by Beth on

How can we learn more about the CBP searching computers? I've never heard of this and I am in and out of the country a few times a year.

Can they actually confiscate the memory or just search it/download it?

Submitted by Anonymous on

"The CBP uniform is navy blue, while the TSA uniform is more of a royal blue."

Silly us. How could anyone have ever mistaken these two?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Might have reduced confusion if you did not add confusion with the current uniforms on purpose to trick people into thinking your TSO's are LEOs.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Question: Since the TSA can plant cocaine in your luggage as part of a training exercise can they also plant things on your laptop while visiting this blog?

Submitted by TSOWilliamReed on

Anonymous said...
Question: Since the TSA can plant cocaine in your luggage as part of a training exercise can they also plant things on your laptop while visiting this blog?

January 22, 2010 2:41 PM
--------------

No they can not place things in your luggage as part of a training exercise and they also can't plant things into you rlaptop while visiting this blog. In fact TSA has never placed things in passengers bags as part of a test. That incident was one stupid employee playing a joke, he was not doing a mandated TSA test for security.

Submitted by Anonymous on

So why did you suddenly decide to post about this issue? The first link in your posting, while mentioning TSA in the title, is explicit in talking about CBP, not TSA. Exactly how many stories about "TSA laptop searches" have been circulating lately? And then you reference a 2-year-old blog posting?

This looks like a posting whose only purpose is to push down and remove the Philadelphia TSA drug-planting incident from being the "top story" on the blog!

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob,

Why are you posting this story ahead of the information about "What Happened in Philadelphia?".. Are you trying to bury the story by putting up something else?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Might want to rephrase the end - CBP can also interact with you when you are departing the country. Would be nice to see a consistent, factual approach to communications.

Submitted by Tech_ed on

" The CBP uniform is navy blue, while the TSA uniform is more of a royal blue."

Blue is blue...if they want to make a distinction, then one should be blue and the other should be lime green or something...How do we know that the royal blue uniform didn't have a laundry accident and now looks more navy blue than royal blue.
Sheeesh!
Ed

Submitted by Shamino on

To those commenting on the colors: Follow the links and look at the photos. They are quite different colors, even though both are shades of blue. Also note that CBP officers have arm-patches that clearly say "US Customs and Border Protection".

To Beth: Customs has the right to seize and inspect anything coming into the country if the suspect it to be contraband or otherwise illegal. This has always been the case, since long before there were computers or even airplanes. Some recent (if you consider 2006 recent) court cases have pointed out that this includes inspection of software if they suspect illegal content, like kiddie porn. This ruling is an extension of prior rulings that people entering the country (like objects) may be searched without probably cause, suspicion or a warrant.

See also CBP's page regarding laptop inspections, including links to policy and court decisions.

This isn't really new, but a few recent cases have brought these policies into the news.

Submitted by RB on

TSOWilliamReed said...
Anonymous said...
Question: Since the TSA can plant cocaine in your luggage as part of a training exercise can they also plant things on your laptop while visiting this blog?

January 22, 2010 2:41 PM
--------------

No they can not place things in your luggage as part of a training exercise and they also can't plant things into you rlaptop while visiting this blog. In fact TSA has never placed things in passengers bags as part of a test. That incident was one stupid employee playing a joke, he was not doing a mandated TSA test for security.

January 22, 2010 3:16 PM
.......
Why should anyone believe you?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Can the TSA search other personal effects, such as notebooks, wallets, books, etc, if there is no alarm or evidence of WEI? I have had the TSA search through personal papers, and read what was written on them. Is this allowed? Please do a blog entry on passenger rights, as it seems they are slowly being eroded as the terrorist hysteria grows.

Submitted by Adrian on

I just flew from LAX and was surprised to see the TSA folks in the older white shirts with the yellow embroidered logo rather than the blue shirts with the tin badges. Was I spoofed? Did I got through a bogus TSA checkpoint?

Submitted by Anonymous on

* Fourth Amendment – Protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Regardless of any judge's revisionist ruling(s), I don't see anything in the Fourth Amendment which would even imply "Unless Customs wants to take a peek, and/or copy what they want."

Submitted by Anonymous on

Nice job pushing the "powder planting" post down. But it's your blog, so fair enough.

Now why can the TSA take pictures of my daughter naked and CBP has the right to search passengers' laptops for the exact same pictures?

Isn't that a little bit like a joke that will get passengers detained is just a "kick in the gut" (but no further consequences) for the TSA?

I mean why is it ok for the government to do a thing that's not ok for a citizen to do?

Submitted by Andy on

You guys are the one who switched from white to blue and started wearing metal badges. If you stuck with white, you probably wouldn't have people confusing TSA with CBP. You wanted the additional "respect" you thought would come with blue police-style uniforms. You say you don't want the TSA to be confused with the other airport-based blue-uniform-wearing gold-badge-wearing luggage-searching DHS agency. Somehow, I don't really believe you.

Submitted by The Shrike on

I travel to and from Toronto from the US a few times a week. I have been observing the TSA's knee jerk reactions to past events with total disbelief and annoyance. As you may know by now, one of the latest pieces of security theatre perpetrated on travelers is the 3rd "checkpoint". This new checkpoint actually happens after you pass the Xray machine/metal detector when boarding an inbound flight to the US. You are meant to be patted down and thoroughly searched to make sure you don't havy any super secret explosive toothpaste or some other nefarious device. In Toronto international Airport this is how the search went today: A security agent checked my boarding pass and motioned me to another agent who politely asked me to empty my overcoat pockets and my pant pockets. The agent then pats me down and checks the things I removed from my clothing. Satisfied, the agent puts a mark on my pass and motions me to another short line within the same checkpoint. I stand in that line for a while then put my my gloves that where in my coat into my briefcase and take my iPhone from the case and put it in my coat pocket. I did not do this even remotely covertly but completely in plain view and methodically. I waited for my turn and then another agent asked me to put my bag on a table where they searched it thoroughly and asked me to turn on my laptop. I informed them that the laptop was out of battery and the agent had a dumbfounded look on his face. He said I would have to have it Xrayed and I reminded him it was made of aluminium and full of other metal and had obviously already been through the machine as it would have never made it through the metal detector on my person. He thought about this a bit further and then simply let me through. A few obvious problems with this extra security checkpoint that requires all this time and money around the whole world to maintain. First, I am allowed to move items from an "unsecured zone", my briefcase, to a "secure zone", my person. Second, why ask everyone to turn on their cellphones and laptops when the only thing needed to thwart this is a depleted battery? That said, how is a powered electronic device make me safer? If there where explosives packed in the laptop then would the powered laptop not represent a perfect triggering device? I asked the head of the security outfit about these two discrepancies only to hear that it was working exactly as intended and the fact that I was able to transfer items during the check was of no consequence because "I had already been through the other checkpoint". The most valuable thing I have in my life, is time, and it is being wasted for absolutely no reason what so ever.
Before someone says that it was not the TSA but the Canadian security let me remind you that these measures are by directive of the TSA. Before someone says that the directive is sound but the execution is not I proffer that even if it where a good directive, which it is not for many many reasons, it is pointless to presume that the TSA could get every other government to secure their checkpoints properly. Anyone that has traveled within the 3rd world knows this to be true.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob,

If you're trying to crowd out the "What happened in Philadelphia" story, why not run a story explaining "What happened in Detroit"? You can find the video at http://www.obscuredtruth.com/.

The question I'd like to have answered is, "Does photographing, video-taping or just watching TSA employees at a gate area constitute 'suspicious behavior'?" If yes, please explain why such perfectly legal behavior is 'suspicious' to TSA and detail what other legitimate, non-disruptive, legal behaviors TSA regards as 'suspicious'. If no, please explain why the gentleman in question was detained, questioned, followed and harassed.

Thank you.

T-the-B at flyertalk

Submitted by Anonymous on

These blogs by the TSA are almost as weak as their security. "I read comments every now and then." Where are the comments coming from, who is writing them? I mean they could be coming from a fairy tale princess for all we know.
So the reports are coming from people who have their laptops searched. If I infer here, the TSA keeping data on those who (A.) post blogs, and (B.)laptops which are searched by CBP.
TSA is adament about the difference between uniform colors, but they share data on searches. I find this highly unlikely.
How does "Bob" know all this? Why should one believe what Bob says?
This TSA blog is a bunch of fluff. If they really wanted to do their job they would actually check your identity with a verified boarding pass. The TSA agents before you go through security cannot check to make sure your boarding pass is legit. You can have a falisfied boarding pass that matches a real ID. As soon as you are through security, all you have to do is switch out the false boarding pass with the real one and nobody checks your ID when you get on the plane. Whay-La, you beat TSA.

Submitted by Ayn R Key on

And you're both part of the DHS.

Submitted by Anonymous on

It's wrong to search someone's data. Bob, you better make sure TSA is never so cavalier about violating people's righ... oh, right, forgot who I was talking to there for a moment.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob, are you for real? I am a regular reader of this blog and I cannot recall a single instance where a commenter has criticized the TSA for searching laptops. The only reference to the non-existent "myth" that you have set out to debunk is in the headline of the article that you linked. The article itself, by the way, makes no reference to TSA, though the headline does. Did this erroneous headline appear in the New York Times? No. The Washington Post? No. Time Magazine??!!??! Nope. Bob has sighted as his singular inspiration for this obviously superflous post an article from gamepolitics.com. That's right, gamepolitics.com, which is to say a website that is completely inconsequential. Y'know Bob, I've seen a lot of good questions on you very own blog that you have ignored for a very long time-- so tell me, why respond to a meaningless critic at this point? You wouldn't want to bump posts regarding embarassing incidents off the front page, would you? Of course not, because that would be dishonorable-- like a man who lies for a living.


st of all, this "article" isn't from the New York Times, The Washington Post, or even the Philadelphia Inquirer: it is from gamespolitics.com,

Submitted by Anonymous on

No one asked you about this. Kindly answer the numerous questions that you have ignored, please.

Submitted by Steve Marsel on

Is there a way to be sure that all information on my laptop is safe from damage while going through the xray process? I'm a photographer and often on return from jobs away from my base city of Boston, the hard drive on my laptop Is the only place where the job resides. Is there any danger, and if yes, what can I do to protect my data?

Submitted by Jannis on

One trip a couple of years back I was flying out of DFW and saw a passenger who was walking to a gate turn around and yell at the pilot heading to the same gate. The passenger thought the pilot was working for TSA and following him. The genius wasn’t even smart enough to tell the difference so I am not surprised that many people are not smart enough to tell whether it is TSA and CBP searching their computer.

Submitted by Anonymous on

But apparently TSA can search wallets, read every piece of paper & credit card therein, and read every piece of paper in your briefcase.

I've seen it done at DCA.

Bob, there's really no difference between reading computer files and emptying and reading stuff in a wallet.

Despite the denials here, it sure seems that TSA is intent on running a dragnet and invading privacy.

Submitted by Anonymous on

So, Bob, if TSA can't read files on a computer or confiscate the computer, then why did your agents do just that with Steven Frischling?

Submitted by Anonymous on

How about answering a question that is actually relevant: are we or are we not permitted to film TSA employees. Or are we permitted to film them only as long as we're willing to be detained and endlessly harassed?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob
You guys might not be permitted to search the files on a laptop, but you appear to be allowed to search for Arabic/English flash cards, and then detain and eventually arrest the student carrying them.
Are flash cards a threat to aviation?

Submitted by HappyToHelp on

Jannis said...
“One trip a couple of years back I was flying out of DFW and saw a passenger who was walking to a gate turn around and yell at the pilot heading to the same gate. The passenger thought the pilot was working for TSA and following him. The genius wasn’t even smart enough to tell the difference so I am not surprised that many people are not smart enough to tell whether it is TSA and CBP searching their computer.”

I heard a similar story from one of our regular pilots here at SMF. He is a southwest pilot. Maybe, it was the same person?

Tim
TSA Blog Team

Submitted by Phil on

Someone anonymously asked:

"are we or are we not permitted to film TSA employees. Or are we permitted to film them only as long as we're willing to be detained and endlessly harassed?"

There doesn't seem to be any law stopping us from doing so, but in practice, TSA staff make up policy on the spot, so doing so is likely to get you harassed, if not jailed and accused of things you did not do.

For more on this, see TSA's March 31, 2009, blog post, "Can I Take Photos at the Checkpoint and Airport?". In it, Bob informed us that TSA doesn't "prohibit public, passengers or press from photographing, videotaping, or filming at screening locations" and that we "can take pictures at our checkpoints as long as [we're] not interfering with the screening process or slowing things down". He first told us that TSA requests that people do not film or photograph TSA computer monitors. Later, he said such photography was not simply discouraged, but prohibited. Despite numerous requests for him to do so, he never backed his later assertion with citation of any law prohibiting such photography.

In that same post, Bob also suggested that we use TSA's "Got Feedback?" form to contact airports directly to find out if any local policies applied. I took his advice and contacted 50 U.S. airports. About half of them responded. Information provided was inconsistent, sometimes confirming Bob's "no photographing monitors" statement, sometimes confirming Bob's "we ask that you do not photograph monitors" statement. I published all this information on FlyerTalk Forums. Bob will not allow links to that information, purportedly because it contains contact information for TSA's airport "customer service" staff. Search the Web for "flyertalk airport photography" to find it.

I have some personal experience with TSA staff's lack of understanding of their own photography policies. I can't discuss it now, and Bob won't allow links to information others have gathered about the situation independently of me and published on the Web, but it's easily located if you're interested. My first hearing is scheduled for a couple weeks from now.

--
Phil
Arrested at ABQ TSA checkpoint November 15, 2009. Google it.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob
You guys might not be permitted to search the files on a laptop, but you appear to be allowed to search for Arabic/English flash cards, and then detain and eventually arrest the student carrying them.
Are flash cards a threat to aviation?
------------------

Anon-- can you please post a link to this incident? I hadn't heard of this latest case of highly trained transportation security professionals exercising their discretion and keeping us safe from the existential threat of terrorism.

Submitted by Ayn R Key on

Bob,

It is well known that you only ever reply to comments in the absolute most recent blog entry. That is unfortunate because there are many comments in the entry posted ONE DAY before this one that are crying out for your attention.

Get over to the older entry and do your job. Reply to the questions and comments about the TSO who planted drugs to find.

Submitted by AngryMiller on

Hey, Bob, why did some of your TSOs go through my wallet (didn't alarm) at an airport? Why did your TSOs go through documents provided me by my company (restricted to company use)?

Bob, it looks like your TSOs pretty much do what they want to with little regard to the rules governing administrative searches.

Why should anyone trust a TSA employee to do anything properly?

Submitted by Anonymous on

TSA pretty much does what TSA wants to do or at least until the press heats up the issue with embarrassing news articles.

Submitted by TSOWilliamReed on

Steve Marsel said...
Is there a way to be sure that all information on my laptop is safe from damage while going through the xray process? I'm a photographer and often on return from jobs away from my base city of Boston, the hard drive on my laptop Is the only place where the job resides. Is there any danger, and if yes, what can I do to protect my data?

January 23, 2010 5:53 AM
-------------

Your computer is perfectly safe going through x-ray machines. Protection technology for hardrives has become very advanced in todays computer market. In fact, the casing of your hardrive and computer hardly lets any x-rays penetrate it. Even if x-rays were harmful to your data saved on the hardrive they couldn't penetrate the casing of the hardrive and laptop with enough juice left to damage anything. The only item that is damaged in x-rays are photo negatives of a speed of 800 or higher. I can verify this by saying hundreds of thousands of laptops are sent through x-rays every day and not one ever has a problem.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Just dealing with the air passenger security system is becoming as complicated as dealing with the IRS tax system. Too many "BOO!'s" and "GOTCHA's".

Well, I have to do my taxes, but I don't have to fly. I just made my life easier!

Submitted by Anonymous on

The federal gov and hence the TSA cannot provide airport security better than if each airline were to provide their own security. Where does the TSA get their resources? From the private sector! So what is it about the fact that they work for the gov that makes them better security experts? Better qualified? Nothing. In fact workers for the fed gov in any capacity have no incentive whatsoever to care about your security. Whereas private security firms are in the business of making a profit and that is a huge incentive to do a good job. The size of the TSA makes it a financial boondoggle on the American people, inefficient, unmanageable and a logistical nightmare. If each airline were responsible for thier own security you would have real experts in the field, working smaller groups of people with a real incentive to do a good job. Then people who don't fly wouldn't have to pay for security for those that do. Passengers could choose who they fly with and therefore whose security system they trust. Airlines with better security might have a competitive advantage in the market place and be more profitable.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Steve Marsel said...
Is there a way to be sure that all information on my laptop is safe from damage while going through the xray process? I'm a photographer and often on return from jobs away from my base city of Boston, the hard drive on my laptop Is the only place where the job resides. Is there any danger, and if yes, what can I do to protect my data?



Steve the xray can only ruin certain types of film, you can also have a tsa officer hand inspect any type of film to be on the safe side, they will conduct a physical inspection as well as an ETD sampling

Submitted by Lightfinger on

Having traveled to Las Vegas from Omaha as recently as August, and having to turn on a laptop to show it legitimately worked, I dispute that part of the statement.

I did not have to show any information, just demonstrate it was an actual laptop by turning it on.

Last I knew, Omaha to Las Vegas trips don't require a customs stop.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Anonymous said...
Can the TSA search other personal effects, such as notebooks, wallets, books, etc, if there is no alarm or evidence of WEI? I have had the TSA search through personal papers, and read what was written on them. Is this allowed? Please do a blog entry on passenger rights, as it seems they are slowly being eroded as the terrorist hysteria grows.

January 22, 2010 5:35 PM
.................
Most TSA employees will say you have no rights once screening starts.

Submitted by Jim Huggins on

Anonymous asks for a link to the story about being detained by TSA for having Arabic flash cards.

Philly.com has a nice article, quoting all the relevant parties (including a representative of TSA).

Submitted by HappyToHelp on

Steve Marsel said...

“Is there a way to be sure that all information on my laptop is safe from damage while going through the xray process? I'm a photographer and often on return from jobs away from my base city of Boston, the hard drive on my laptop Is the only place where the job resides. Is there any danger, and if yes, what can I do to protect my data?”

The manufacturer data for the X-ray machines says that all digital data is safe for X-ray. Like you, I have worried about the data on my laptop. I use a remote backup solution. It worked well when I went on my last vacation.

Maybe, some of our frequent business travelers can give you better advice.

Wish you the best of travels,


Tim
TSA Blog Team

Submitted by Anonymous on

Amazing. A certain person named Steve posts a fake question that is really just an ad for his photography firm (check his URL) and it merits two replies from TSOs. Yet all the other legitimate questions go unanswered.

Submitted by TSOWilliamReed on

People please stop harassing bob, he is here to answer your questions about the screening process not to be TSA's complaint shield. The questions your asking are mean, negative, and he or others like him have answered your questions on past blogs whether you enjoyed the answer or not. If you would like, ask your questions again and I will answer them to the best of my ability using my personal experiences working for TSA for the past year and half. Please be aware I work in a small airport and have no access to the WBI's or their training. RB, to answer your question from earlier you can trust me as much as you can trust any other person on the internet honestly. For all you know I am not a TSO, but if I wasn't then bob would not let me parade around his blog speaking for TSA now would he? You can trust me because I am one of the officers on the front line with no ties to upper management or headquarters that you mainly complain about. All I see is the checkpoint and what happens in it every day, I just do my job to keep the airplanes in the air. I don't care about politics or anything like that. I have great respect for the TSA and my mission because knowing the facts hiding behind SSI and FOUO information is much more....interesting than you can believe.

Submitted by Phil on

Someone posting as smfflyer on FlyerTalk recently relayed an experience during which TSA staff asked him to hand over his mobile phone. More concerned with making his flight than with standing up to these bullies, he complied with their request:

"The TSA officer then asked me questions about the call I was making (to my wife) and wanted to see my cell phone. I handed over the cell phone to him and he fiddled with it for a few minutes looked at my calls dialed and received calls asked me about the number I dialed (my wife's cell number) and took a note of that number."

Just another bad apple?

--
Phil
Showing ID only affects honest
people.

What if the people with the power to secretly put your name on a "no-fly" list didn't like the reason for which you want to fly?

Submitted by Anonymous on
"The federal gov and hence the TSA cannot provide airport security better than if each airline were to provide their own security. Where does the TSA get their resources? From the private sector! So what is it about the fact that they work for the gov that makes them better security experts? Better qualified? Nothing. In fact workers for the fed gov in any capacity have no incentive whatsoever to care about your security. Whereas private security firms are in the business of making a profit and that is a huge incentive to do a good job. The size of the TSA makes it a financial boondoggle on the American people, inefficient, unmanageable and a logistical nightmare. If each airline were responsible for thier own security you would have real experts in the field, working smaller groups of people with a real incentive to do a good job. Then people who don't fly wouldn't have to pay for security for those that do. Passengers could choose who they fly with and therefore whose security system they trust. Airlines with better security might have a competitive advantage in the market place and be more profitable."

The problem is that nobody took security seriously before 9/11. The people working the checkpoints were the McDonalds rejects.

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