According to this CNN story, U.S. customs can legitimately and legally confiscate the laptop of anyone entering the country. Without even having to justify why, they can download everything on your hard drive and keep it for basically as long as they want. From the article:
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.
If you, like me, didn't know about this, consider yourself warned. The implications for corporate meetings with attendees from non-U.S. branches is mind-boggling. And what about international physicians traveling to a national medical society meeting here? Think about the HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) violations that could occur if they had any patient data in there.
Good thing there are USB flash drives people now can use to transport sensitive information without having to worry about border guards or thieves grabbing their laptops.
Update: Here's more on how to protect yourself, from Jim Louis, one of the MeCo listserv moderators (posted here with his permission, of course):
These programs are both Windows-based, but Macs have FileVault.
Another option is keeping your files on a secure server back in the U.S. and connecting securly to it from anywhere in the world. Â Using a VPN Network or something like Iomega's I-storage to keep your fields.
Also remember Customs can conficate USB Drives as well if they feel that they need to, so when traveling you should make sure that your USB drive has some level of password protection and encryption. Â A more secure option is something with Biometric Security like the "1GB Cruzer profile with built-in biometric security" Â Here you need to use your thumb print to prove who you are.