Dear Lifehacker, I'm flying to Australia next month to take part in an university exchange program, and I was wondering what is the customs officers' policy regarding laptops and external HDDs arriving through Sydney airport: I've heard that in the US airport security can actually check the files in your laptop, and I would like to know if something similar has happened in Australia (I'm mainly concerned about my iTunes Library having some files that were acquired through torrent clients, and stuff like that). Thanks, Privacy Fan
Dear Privacy Fan,
The short answer — and it probably isn't one you want to hear — is: yes, it can happen and it has happened. A quick search of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service site highlights numerous cases where the contents of laptops and hard drives have been examined by border security officials, and people charged as a result. There's even a category on the incoming passenger card to indicate whether you're in possession of pornography.
The pornography connection is worth noting: I couldn't find any examples of someone being charged specifically with having material that violated copyright on their laptop. However, there are documented cases of more wide-scale busts for copyright violation, so there's no reason to assume that customs couldn't decide to make an example of you. It might be economically unlikely, as it's more effective to bust a mass importer of pirate DVDs than a single customer. And in practical terms, a bunch of music files in a single iTunes library are not likely to stand out as suspicious (unless the first items on the iTunes screen happen to be something that's obviously not a legitimate purchase or rip, such as leaked albums or movies).
Even so, there's no way I'd dismiss it as impossible. Australian customs official are remarkably thorough — more so than almost anywhere else in the world I've visited under normal circumstances — so the simplest approach is just to make sure you're not doing anything wrong.
We've mentioned the prospect of encrypting your laptop to keep it safe from prying border security eyes before. That said, I can't imagine that refusing to supply the password for your encrypted drive is going to do anything other than make customs officials more convinced than ever that you have something to hide. The best-case outcome there would probably be refusing to let you into the country in the first place, which is hardly what you want.
Another thought: even if Australian border protection wasn't concerned about what was on your laptop, you're still going to be returning to the US at some point, and could face similar examination there. And that's leaving aside if you decide to take a discount trip to New Zealand or the Pacific Islands or South-East Asia while you're here.
So given all that, I'd be backing up anything that was of questionable legality onto an external drive and leaving it at home. (What I'd really like to do is advise you not to download stuff illegally in the first place, but you've obviously already made that decision, so I won't waste my breath.)
Something else to bear in mind is that you need (at least in theory) to be able to demonstrate that you intend to use that laptop yourself and aren't planning on selling it while you're in Australia. That's unlikely to be an issue if you're travelling as a student with a single machine, but it's worth mentioning in case you're a technology addict.
In the long run, you should enough to do in Australia that you won't need to resort to watching or listening to your home media collection; get out, enjoy some live Aussie music, and relax in front of iView, the best of our local streaming TV services, if you want to kick back without leaving campus. Enjoy your visit!
Picture courtesy Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman has been known to travel overseas with more than one laptop. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.