If you haven’t done anything wrong, you aren’t in any danger of losing your files to the law, are you? Ask Steve Jackson Games. On March 1, 1990, the U. S. Secret Service raided their headquarters, taking four computers, two laser printers, and other hardware. They didn’t get them back for four months, and then not everything. In 1994 a court ruled that the raid was completely unjustified and awarded damages to the Steve Jackson Games, which is still around. Many companies, though, would have been destroyed by the disruption.

Must … restrain … rant. This isn’t a liberty blog, it’s a digital preservation blog. The point here is that even if you’re completely innocent, cops can seize your computers and data storage. It’s not too different a hazard from fire, floods, and (illegal) theft, except that insurance won’t help you. The advice on how to protect yourself is pretty much the same in all those cases.

Offsite backup is the key. If you have a drive which is right next to your computer, chances are the cops (or fire, or whatever) will take both. Should you use an online backup service or a physical device you can take with you? Both have their strengths and weaknesses. If your backup device is at home, and your house is raided too, you might lose it. It’s legally much harder for them to shut down your online backup, but a drive that can’t be found can’t be touched. Be imaginative about where to keep it.

Here I’m focusing just on avoiding data loss, not on security issues. You have to balance the two; every offsite backup, especially an unencrypted one, can be a security risk. Keep their locations secure or encrypt them. Keep the decryption information separate from both the original and the backup. A memory stick or piece of paper in your clothes closet may be a good bet. (I’m not a fan of the doctrine that you should never write passwords; just be careful where you leave them and don’t make it obvious what they’re passwords for.)

It’s legal for US Customs to take your computer for no reason at all when you cross the border. If you have to take one, make sure it’s fully backed up before going on an international trip, and make an Internet backup of anything you create before you head home. This also protects you against loss to mugging and hotel burglary, so it’s a good plan all around.

Even with a backup, you’ll want your computers and data back. That’s a job for a lawyer, not a computer geek. Get one right away after the raid, before the cops can destroy, erase, or “lose” your computer. Even in these days of crippled liberties, a lawyer can often help you get what’s yours back.