Crossing the U.S Border with Sensitive Data

Many times employees may carry sensitive corporate or personal information on their computer or phone across international borders either intentionally or unintentionally. Unfortunately, the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures do not apply at border crossings. At international airports, CBP officers are empowered to search and seize without a warrant or other court oversight. See United States v. Flores-Montano, 541 U.S. 149, 152 (2004); United States v. Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606, 616 (1977).
That power extends over all individuals passing through U.S. borders, including at international airports, whether or not the individual is a U.S. citizen, and whether or not the individual is suspected to have committed a crime. Although the border officer may not be able to force a person to provide him with a password to a laptop, phone or storage device, that officer does have the authority to immediately seize the device and detain the custodian for questioning.
Your ability to protect sensitive data should begin before ever approaching the border. Before flying internationally, determine if you will be carrying sensitive data. If so, consider storing the information in the company cloud and using a “burner” phone or a laptop or tablet that has been stripped of sensitive information. If not possible, consider using FedEx to send sensitive data cross border.
There may be nothing you can do in the face of an unreasonable border patrol officer demanding access to your mobile device or laptop. For that reason, it is important that your company have a policy or procedure in place to protect sensitive information before traveling across borders.