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Winging It: Worries about traveling with your laptop

If you have anything stored on your laptop computer that you don't want just anyone to read, it might be a good idea not to take the device out of the country.

If you have anything stored on your laptop computer that you don't want just anyone to read, it might be a good idea not to take the device out of the country.

As another example of your government at work, there's a chance the laptop won't make it all the way home with you.

That's a big worry to some groups that represent business travelers.

While law-enforcement authorities must have a search warrant to peer inside a computer in your home or office, they don't need one to look in your luggage or other possessions if you've left the country and are reentering it. Customs and Border Protection agents can seize and keep your laptop, cell phone, digital camera or other electronic device until they determine that you aren't a security threat.

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives, a worldwide organization with members in 82 countries, has been a leader in focusing attention on this area of law, one that's still largely unknown to business people. The group has allies in the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian Law Caucus, and others with an interest in protecting individual privacy rights.

This is a sensitive area. Is there anyone who doesn't want authorities to know if a person entering the country to stage a terrorist attack has plans stored on a computer? I hope not. But that's not the issue here.

The issue is whether the Constitution's Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures protects you from border guards taking your computer, keeping it as long as they like, and copying its contents, including proprietary business information or attorney-client communication.

Federal courts have ruled that, in fact, the government doesn't need to suspect you of a crime before seizing anything you try to bring into the country. But that power, and especially the way the Department of Homeland Security has been carrying out laptop seizures, was the subject of a hearing last week held by the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D., Wis.), the subcommittee chairman, said he believes most Americans would agree that the government has the right to inspect their bags for contraband. But he said he doesn't think they would agree the government must know every Web site you visited and read every e-mail you sent.

Feingold said he had received no reply to questions on the department's policies and procedures that he sent to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff two months ago. The department did not send anyone to testify in its defense but said in a statement that it had found information and video clips related to terrorism on seized laptops.

Susan Gurley, executive director of the corporate travel group, testifying at the hearing, called for major changes in the procedures authorities are using in seizing laptops and other electronic devices. She noted that in today's wired world, a person's "office" - where a search requires a warrant based on suspicion of a crime - is a laptop, BlackBerry and cell phone.

"The issue is how can the government ensure the integrity of seized information once it is determined that no criminal activity exists," Gurley said. "What assurances does the traveling public have regarding the disposition of seized hardware and data now? What recourse do they have for retrieving it? Absolutely none. It simply disappears into the bowels of the U.S. government."

Gurley recommended that the committee get a privacy-impact assessment from Homeland Security detailing how many laptops have been seized, why they were taken, and how much time it should take before a device is returned to its owner. She also said there should be published policies for protecting the integrity of data on the devices, and the circumstances that would allow other government agencies to see it.

But until that happens, I suggest that if you travel internationally, you scrub your laptop clean of anything you don't want doing an electronic dance around Washington.

Most airlines are slashing their schedules for this fall as a way to cope with fuel costs. But if US Airways' plans are any indication, it looks like Philadelphia will see practically no change. US Airways says it will operate just 20 fewer flights a week in the fall compared with what it has now.

The only cities without US Airways flights that had them last fall will be Charleston, W.Va., and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Added since last year are flights to London Heathrow Airport, New Bern, N.C., and Sacramento, Calif. In addition, service to Shannon, Ireland, is scheduled to go from seasonal, ending in October, to year-round.