Child porn and border searches

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Wharton professor emeritus L. Scott Ward was arrested after being caught with child pornography on his laptop at a border stop (þ Orin Kerr):
Ward, 63, was arrested Sunday after arriving at Washington's Dulles airport on a flight from Brazil, federal authorities said. He drew the attention of federal agents because of his unusual number of trips to Thailand, a destination for people seeking sex with minors, according to an affidavit released Monday.

Agents examined his laptop computer and found a video showing two children who looked to be as young as 8 engaged in sexual activity, authorities alleged in the affidavit. Agents also found video recordings of Ward involved in sex acts with boys who look to be about 14 to 16, the affidavit said.

I have no useful opinion on whether customs agents legally can search your laptop (Kerr seems to think they can) but it doesn't seem like a very useful practice for catching any serious smugglers. First, the amount of storage that still photographs and even video consume is relatively small in the grand scheme of things. Anyone who is serious about smuggling them into the country can easily hide the media somewhere other than their laptop. Even hiding it on an iPod would be pretty good, but you can hide solid state storage lots of places. Second, given that you have a mass storage device (laptop), iPod, etc. it's trivial to hide the data in ways that only a real expert inspection could find, for instance on unused sectors on the hard drive. And, of course, you can encrypt it. Finally, you can just bypass the physical storage entirely and encrypt it and transmit it into the country electronically.

Of course, that doesn't mean that you can't catch people who are unsophisticated, but those people aren't primarily smugglers. More likely they're people who ordinarily have contraband (for instance they downloaded it when they were in the US) and haven't bothered to clean it off their laptops.

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Given the depth of searches used for laptops at customs, chances are that changing the file names would work just fine.

It seems a little surprising that customs officials would do this out of the blue. I wonder if they had some specific tip, and they're trying not to burn their source by claiming that the large number of trips to Thailand was the trigger for the search.

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