Big Brother Is Watching At the Border

There have been complaints for several months regarding the seizure of laptop computers at borders, recent newspaper reports have detailed the extent the government can go. The Washington Post reports:

Federal agents may take a traveler’s laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed.

Also, officials may share copies of the laptop’s contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons, according to the policies, dated July 16 and issued by two DHS agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement…

The policies state that officers may “detain” laptops “for a reasonable period of time” to “review and analyze information.” This may take place “absent individualized suspicion.”

The policies cover “any device capable of storing information in digital or analog form,” including hard drives, flash drives, cellphones, iPods, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes. They also cover “all papers and other written documentation,” including books, pamphlets and “written materials commonly referred to as ‘pocket trash’ or ‘pocket litter.’ “

Ultimately if there is no evidence of a crime the devices are returned and copies of the material will be destroyed but written reports may be maintained. The report does state that, “When officers determine there is probable cause of unlawful activity-based on a review of information in documents or electronic devices encountered at the border or on other facts and circumstances-they may seize and retain the originals andlor copies of relevant documents or devices, as authorized by law.” Does this mean that if there is a copy of an illegally downloaded song on an iPod or computer they may retain the device?

Senator Russ Feingold has been holding hearings on this policy and is introducing legislation to “require reasonable suspicion for border searches, as well as prohibit profiling on race, religion or national origin.”  A pdf copy of the policy is available here.

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