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No privacy for laptops

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Is looking inside a laptop the same as opening up a suitcase? In the eyes of U.S. federal law they are.

Frequent flyers might be surprised to learn that American legislation allows customs and border guards to confiscate anyone's laptop without any ground for suspicion and copy all the information held within it.

Seized laptops and copied hard drives seem like business travellers' apocryphal stories, but the issue was recently brought to light by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives.

Their informal survey of 2,500 international members found that 90 percent did not know that U.S. customs officials had the right to scrutinize, copy or even seize laptops without having to give a reason.

The broad powers enabling customs and border guards to do this dates back to 1985 and both U.S. and foreign nationals are equally subject to the law.

Only one percent of those surveyed claimed to have experience of this happening, but industry experts agree that this does not mean there should not be some cause for concern.

"It might not be a common occurrence, but the fact that it is happening at all should make everybody pause. The increased use of this law might be part of the post 9/11 vigilance from customs and border guards, but it could be seen that confiscating laptops goes beyond its proper use," John Gurley of Washington D.C-based law firm Arent Fox PLLC told CNN.

Arent Fox are currently representing one traveller who had their laptop seized, its contents copied and then returned a week later, but he has heard of numerous other cases.

One woman from the ACTE survey said she had been waiting a year for her laptop to be sent back. Aside for the inconvenience of having to surrender a laptop for an indefinite period of time and the huge disruption it would cause to a business trip, there is also a question of privacy.

"Currently we don't know what happens to all the files and information that is copied by customs once a person is not found to have anything incriminating. This is something that needs to be resolved, as there remains the threat of misuse. The one thing that is certain is that the customs and border authority can share the information with all other U.S government agencies," said Gurley.

A court ruling in California earlier this month found that laptop searches were a serious breech of privacy and not part of a routine search. The U.S. government has challenged this ruling.

"Confidentiality is threatened. A person's sensitive business or legal documents and personal financial information are often keep on a computer," said Gurley.

While the ACTE are not questioning the validity of the law, Greeley Koch, president of the ACTE, suggests that frequent flyers shouldn't have anything on their computers that they would not want anyone else to read.

"This includes proprietary corporate information and personal data," he said at a recent conference.

A third of the ACTE's members said they already had policies limiting the type of information that can be stored on a laptop - they were in place to counter the threat of theft -- but now more business travellers will have to pause for thought about what's on their hard drive.

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Both U.S. and international travellers can have their laptops seized without reason.

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