Since the terrorist attack on the 9/11, the United States has sacrificed some freedoms and liberties in exchange for tighter security in an attempt to prevent future attacks. The ACLU has joined with other groups in filing a legal challenge to one such security measure that infringes on personal liberty--the practice of searching laptops without cause at border crossings. However, there are also other ways you can get your data across the border without having it accessed by the prying eyes of Big Brother.
Benjamin Franklin is given credit for saying "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety," and many of the security measures that have been implemented in the wake of 9/11 violate this basic tenet. But, for some organizations that fall under HIPAA, SOX, GLBA, or other regulations, safeguarding data is not just a principle of personal freedom, but also a compliance mandate.
Check It: If you are traveling by air, you can get your laptop past the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) checkpoint and possibly CBP (Customs and Border Protection) agents by checking it with your luggage. Odds are fair that you wouldn't really use it on the flight anyway. Unless you're flying first class (and how many businesses still allow for expensing first class travel?), there is simply no room to work with a laptop. Whatever minor productivity might result is most likely not worth the effort and frustration.
That said, baggage handlers are not known for treating things gently. There is a reason Samsonite demonstrated the quality of its luggage with commercials showing it being abused by a gorilla. So, your laptop will need to be carefully packed and padded. Also, keep in mind that CBP agents do randomly inspect checked baggage as well so it's not a guarantee that the data won't be accessed.
Encrypt It: Simply encrypting your laptop hard drive, or at least the sensitive files and folders, will prevent casual access by Border agents. If you or your laptop seem particularly suspicious, the government may still try to compel you to share the encryption key so it can get a deeper look at the data, but at that point it will be up to you how much you want to dig in your heels and stand on principle, or if exposing the data to Border agents just trying to protect the country is really that big a deal.
Use USB: Another option for getting sensitive or confidential information across the border without having your Fourth Amendment rights violated is to carry it separately on a USB thumb drive. Your laptop will still be subject to inspection at border checkpoints, but you can remove any critical data that should not be accessed or viewed by others and put it in your pocket or on a keychain with a USB thumb drive.
Take the Cloud: Probably the best way to get your data safely across the border is to simply store it where borders don't exist--the cloud. Border agents might randomly confiscate and access your laptop to ensure you are not part of terrorist sleeper cell intent on destroying America, but your personal, sensitive, and confidential data can be stored safely and securely in the cloud using Google Docs, Box.net, Dropbox, Microsoft's Skydrive, or any of a wide variety of other Web-based storage options.
Using the cloud means that the data will be accessible from any Web connection in the world even if the laptop is lost or stolen, and prevents government agents from unauthorized access of sensitive data at the same time.
Next time you travel internationally, make sure you consider that your possessions may be seized and searched with or without cause, and take some extra steps to protect your data and get it across the border safely.