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I'm coming to the US for work in a few weeks, for a year or so and just had an awful thought.

I remember reading a while ago that US customs are searching through peoples laptops and hard drives. Now I have nothing to worry about as I don't have p**n, etc on my computer/hard drives but I will have trouble proving that the movies, programs and music are paid for.

Essentially, I'm an IT geek and because of the amount I move, I have copied all my DVD's (about 350) and music (5000 songs plus - combination of CD's and paid for content) onto my external portable NAS - its like a mini portable media center and file server. Also I'm a software developer and have lots legitimate MSDN ISO's - but to someone who doesn't know any better they could look illigal.

The problem is I think that to an over eager customs officer they will think all the Christmases have come at once if they start looking at my drive. Also because I'm paranoid about loosing data I have multiple drives (ones that backup the others) and I'm worried that this makes me conspicuous (i.e. my little NAS box) and a target if my baggage is xrayed...

Any ideas on what I can do or if I have anything to worry about???? How do you prove that what you have is legitimate - I feel like I'm guilty until proven innocent.... If it makes a difference I'm coming into the US from Australia.

Cheers

EDIT:

Here is another question - has anyone ever done what I am wanting to do and got into trouble or had no issues (i.e. if customs did pull you up they just looked at the music and movies and didn't care)...

Also does anyone think its worth ringing US customs directly and telling them what the deal is and see what they have to say? Or would this just be raising a flag against my profile - I can't believe this is making me this paranoid... :( Anyone would think I was trying to smuggle dr**s into china or something...

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closed as off topic by MDMarra, Ivo Flipse Jul 8 '10 at 7:22

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Some people mentioned DMCA and US copyright laws. But take a look from this side: You didn't rip DVDs in US. You did it in your home country. US doesn't have jurisdiction there. Also, do the DVDs have digital restrictions management? If they don't then you have nothing to worry about. It could happen that possession of data obtained by use of DRM circumvention is illegal in US. Your best bet would be to look just like everyone else. Customs are more likely to look for something which could be easily detected and which is clearly criminal; your case probably isn't it. –  AndrejaKo Jul 7 '10 at 14:18
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If they checked every electronic medium entering the country for pirated media...well...nobody would get anything else done. –  DWilliams Jul 7 '10 at 15:10
    
Thanks DWilliams ;) –  user42149 Jul 7 '10 at 18:54
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4 Answers 4

*Disclaimer: I'm Canadian

Whenever I go to the 'States with my laptop (and numerous external hard drives), the last concern I have is US Customs & Border Patrol apprehending me and rifling through my data. I could be paranoid and use Truecrypt to encrypt my entire drive, but what good would it do? I'm just another person passing into the US to shop or for business purposes. Unless you give them a very good reason to confiscate your computer & hard drives, they won't.

When they have searched people's computers, they are often looking for obviously illegal content (e.g. child pornography, nuclear launch codes etc.), not whether you've downloaded a few movies or not. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which I hope never comes to Canada) says that you are allowed to make a single copy of your movie or album for backup purposes, but it also makes breaking the encryption on the DVDs illegal. Essentially, it's illegal to do something legal.

As far as the NAS box goes, I would put it in my luggage. I know luggage usually gets bounced around a lot and sometimes even lost (though I've had excellent luck so far), but it's so much easier than having to explain to a very puzzled (Australian) security official what it is. Don't forget that the people who will be X-raying your bag are in your home country, not the one you're traveling to.

It basically all comes down to this:
The US Customs and Border Patrol people working in airports clear thousands of people for entry into the United States every single day. 99.9999% of them move on into the country. The 0.0001% that don't are those who have criminal records, haven't filled out their information cards properly or who forgot their passports. If you don't give them a reason to confiscate your data, they won't.

Safe travels!

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Ah, the good old "Don't attract attention" solution. Usually works, but you do need a backup plan. +1 though –  TheLQ Jul 7 '10 at 20:10
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Agreed and its what happens if they do pull me up that I'm worried about... –  user42149 Jul 7 '10 at 20:18
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I've read some news reports that confirm customs agents have the authority to inspect hard drives, and have done so on a few occasions. However, I'm not sure how logistically feasible this is to be a major concern. Nearly everyone has a laptop, so inspecting every byte for "suspicious data" (whatever that is) would take forever, if even possible. Furthermore, even if they found, say, some MP3s, that in itself isn't illegal. Copying copyrighted data which you haven't bought is illegal, but the burden of proof is on them to prove you didn't buy them, which is virtually impossible to do if they didn't catch you in the act. If you say your data's legitimate, and they've got no evidence to contradict you, then you're safe.

Other users might mention that avoiding copy-prevention systems by making a backup is illegal. I'm not so sure about this, and most lawyers will admit the interpretation of US Copyright law is still unsettled in this regard. The EFF argues that making backups is covered under the "fair use" provision of US copyright law.

There are ways to create hidden and/or encrypted partitions which a customs agent would likely not have the technical skills to detect, but that's for super-paranoid-land, which you really shouldn't need to worry about.

So in other words, I think you're safe. It's not a crime, or even unusual, for a software developer to be carrying around software.

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On the other hand, if he does get detected and searched, hidden/encrypted partitions will make him look like someone who has something to hide. Think for example a small bag full of flour in sole of his shоe. Also I read somewhere on EFF's site that if data storage is searched, he'd have to hand over passwords to encrypted data. –  AndrejaKo Jul 7 '10 at 14:23
    
@AndrejaKo, Fair point. However, this whole issue is a little stupid when you think about it. One could simply put all their data on a private FTP server, erase any sensitive data from the media travelling through "customs", then download it all through the internet once they setup shop somewhere, completely bypassing any overreaching government inspection. Granted, that would certainly be a little slower than simply carrying the hard drives with you, but it renders obsolete any draconian laws dealing with data. –  Cerin Jul 7 '10 at 18:59
    
@Chris S Yeah, that's right. This opens problems with Internet speed and bandwidth, but I doubt that would be much of a problem in Australia. Still, for real criminal use almost anywhere it's much cheaper than getting arrested. –  AndrejaKo Jul 7 '10 at 19:14
    
@Chris S & @AndrejaKo - If it comes down to it to be 100% safe I could host the content here in Australia and then redownload the server via FTP on the other side but is that major overkill... Are they looking for people like more. At this point I feel like a criminal and I haven't done anything wrong except to be to "geeky"... and having brought to many legal songs/movies/tv shows that I can't carry them around on disk any more. –  user42149 Jul 7 '10 at 19:54
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@AndrejaKo: Teh, that was completely dis proven in this topic: forums.truecrypt.org/viewtopic.php?t=1458517 . I can make it look like any file, bury it in the WINDOWS folder, and no customs agent will find it in the 10 mins that they will be looking at it. There is no way to prove that you have encrypted data. The US is a country based on innocent until proven guilty. If I have an encrypted OS that says "Password?", then they can ask me for it. If I have a random partition or file, I can say "I don't know what it is but a computer guy told me not to delete it", and your home free. –  TheLQ Jul 8 '10 at 3:21
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You might need to be aware that even though you have paid for the DVD's, you have presumabley evaded the copy protection system to put them on the drive which is also illegal.

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Do they care though? Also how would they know if I ripped them or whether I paid for them from a legitimated service that one can pay to download the avi's? I've seen different sources saying they only car about p**n and couldn't give a rats about anything else illegal or not and others who say you have to pretty much buy a new HDD if you have ever had illegal content on it... –  user42149 Jul 7 '10 at 14:00
    
Totally agree, it's probably a none issue, but given the way that things go in the US sometimes you need to be aware that you are potentially breaking the law and so it is up to you whether you want to take the risk or not. –  Ian Turner Jul 7 '10 at 14:14
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I go on flights a lot (my dad works for Air Canada) and not once have they asked me to turn on my laptop or show that it works. Yes, I'm talking about going through US Customs. The most they might do is swab the computer to make sure there aren't any harmful chemicals on it. I think they try to avoid turning them on as it may hold the line up.

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So do you have your normal checkin baggage with you when you go through customs or just your carry on? –  user42149 Jul 7 '10 at 20:04
    
Just my carry on. Check-in baggage has already been taken by then. –  BioXhazard Jul 7 '10 at 20:06
    
So do you think it would be better to take the drives check-in or carry-on? –  user42149 Jul 7 '10 at 20:19
    
If you're not going to use them on the flight then you might as well check them in. They're perfectly safe checked in and won't be checked in any way. –  BioXhazard Jul 7 '10 at 20:33
    
Ya I have no need for the NAS during the flight... Its just reading stuff like this airliners.net/aviation-forums/aviation_polls/read.main/159175 (go down to a comment by BlueFlyer where he talks about taking equiement if they "deem" its illegal) that makes my blood drain... –  user42149 Jul 7 '10 at 20:44
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