Lonely Planet Writer

Personal boundaries at the border

x_jamesmorrisEnduring long queues in airports and crossing borders are par for the traveller's course. But how about having a customs officer shuffle through personal photos of your partner, in a compromising state no less?

A new Australian customs requirement asks that all travellers entering the country (including returning residents) declare any pornorgraphy in their possession.

Trouble is, pornography isn't illegal in Australia, in and of itself. And it's not clear how much, if any information authorities give incoming travellers to help them know what's acceptable. The Australian provision mandates that travellers share if they have anything that may constitute porn, allowing customs officers to view it and judge for themselves, if they wish.

The requirement has raised the ire of many who feel it is an unwarranted incursion on privacy that will deter travellers and humilate adults who are not breaking any laws. Thorn Tree members have recently been discussing the issue, sharing tips on how to remove personal material that might create an embarrassing situation, or worse. First bare-all airport full body scanners, now this?

Similar rights to search and seize without warrant exist in the U.S. In 2008 the Department of Homeland Security announced that it could hold any electronic device crossing a border for an indefinite period, "absent individualized suspicion."

Currently the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is under negotiation behind closed doors in multiple countries. If some copyright representatives, such as the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) have their way, the next time you enter a country you may have to hand over your mp3 player and smart phone to be searched for 'pirate' materials, under peril of confiscation.

dan_paluskaOf course, determining that an item of content is pirated is more difficult than you might think, even for those in the industry, and it's doubtful that the various authorities will invest in adequate training to equip front line enforcement officers with the legal and media expertise to make these calls.

Will the law extend to DVDs or CDs that you've burned off your home television to keep yourself occupied on your flight? Will airport security want to fiddle with my personal USB?

These vagaries are troublesome for a new generation of travellers who wouldn't dream of venturing abroad without their laptop, smart phone or iDoohickey of choice. Will they have to purge and reboot for each trip? What of business travellers who may have sensitive commercial information on their devices amidst personal photos or legal adult content?

It can be tricky to get information about these issues, but some decent resources are Wired Magazine's Threat Level blog, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and offiicial government websites responsible for border control and traveller warnings or advice. Good technology websites or online communities, including our very own Thorn Tree travel tech branch can also be a helpful way to connect with travellers on the ground who know the latest.

What do you think?

Does searching for porn or pirated media on gadgets undermine the legitimate business of keeping travellers safe from harm? It is in any way practical?

Have you had a customs encounter involving your devices that you thought was unfair or over the top?

[Photos: x_jamesmorris/Flickr, dan_paluska/Flickr]