Monday, August 11, 2008

Academics Beware: Traveling through the U.S. and U.K.

Conference-goers and traveling researchers need to be very wary of some recent developments. Whether you are a U.S. citizen, or just a visitor, whether returning home to the U.S., or just traveling through because your travel agent found the cheapest flights take you through the U.S., U.S. Border Patrol and Customs agents can:

  • Scan and hold laptops indefinitely
  • They can make electronic copies of hard drives, flash drives, cellphones, iPods, pagers, beepers, video and audio tapes
  • They can seize papers, documents, books, pamphlets, or even litter (source)

The scans and seizures are also being used to search for copyright violations (you need to prove that the music on your iPod is music you purchased, presumably).

It must be emphasized: while the media continue to repeat the word laptops as if these were the only focus of the search and seizure, the fact is that it can be any form of recording or documentation in any format that can be searched and seized. Indeed, one has to wonder why the media repeat each other in narrowing their focus.

From a UK perspective, this is nothing new, as the same applies there and came into effect there first.

From the vantage point of anthropologists who often travel overseas to do ethnographic research, this is a major problem if traveling through either the U.K. or the U.S.: we swear to safeguard informant confidentiality, and that is essentially null and void now that any or all of our data can be copied and used. It also potentially turns our paper and electronic documentation of a community into an instrument of free, involuntary, global surveillance for the U.S. It also means that our various ethics review agencies are making academics sign on to policies that they can no longer reasonably uphold, such as confidentiality.

In my case it means something very simple: the U.K. and the U.S. are simply completely off my list of possible travel choices for as long as such policies stay in place. From a personal point of view, the world suddenly got a little smaller, much more manageable, and my data is safer.

For more on this see:

Washington Post: Travelers' Laptops May Be Detained at Border

U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Policy description (pdf)

U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Answering Questions on Border Laptop Searches

1 comment:

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