August 26, 2009

Should Your Laptop be Searched at the Border?

Print More

The days of simply traveling to another country are gone. With ever-growing surveillance, suspicion of wrongdoing is no longer a requirement for invasive searching. When traveling to other countries, including Canada, be prepared to have your laptop searched. This is now common practice for border security officials. Pending litigation, the government’s ability to search your files may be suspended. However, the legality procedure has prevailed for several years and is showing signs of increasing domination.

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit to retrieve records on the U.S. Customs Border and Protection’s (CBP) laptop searching policy. Until the court makes a determination of whether the Freedom of Information Act prohibits this type of searching, the rights of individuals remain unclear. “Traveling with a laptop shouldn’t mean the government gets a free pass to rifle through your personal papers,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. Based the 4th amendment’s provisions against unreasonable search and seizure, those traveling with laptops should have protection.

Under current policy, a U.S. Court of Appeals issued a finding that made it legal for border officials to search, seize, and confiscate laptops without probable cause. CBP claims the right to search all files saved on laptops. This includes personal financial information, family photographs and lists of Web sites travelers have visited. In addition, CBP’s policy pertains to searches of documents, books, pamphlets and other printed material. All other electronic or digital storage devices such as computers, disks, and hard drives are also possible objects for warrantless searching. This policy covers all individuals, whether or not they are U.S. citizens, crossing the border or traveling overseas.

Consumer Traveler states that CBP agents have been searching and seizing laptops, digital cameras, cell phones and other electronic devices at the border, without search warrants, or probable cause since 9/11. Furthermore, agents can subject these devices to extensive forensic analysis, according to the courts. A recent article by the Los Angeles Times accounts the story of Bill Hogan, a freelance journalist, who returned home from Germany. “At Washington’s Dulles International Airport, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent pulled him aside, and said he could reenter the country, but seized Hogan’s laptop for inspection”. Hogan was chosen for the CBP’s “random inspection of electronic media.” His computer was in federal control for more than two weeks.

Considering the need for national security, when should warrantless searches be allowed? Is the government unlawfully invading individual privacy by instituting laptop searches?