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    ABC News Op-Ed: Checking Your Privacy at the Border

    ABC News published an interesting op-ed by Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, about searches conducted by Customs and Border Protection. “Checking Your Privacy at the Border: ‘Snail Mail’ Is More Protected Than Laptops in the Airport Security Line.” (Read my previous posts on this issue.)

    Harris writes:

    The amount of information the government collects on citizens crossing our borders, and the means with which it gathers it, is expanding in ways that seem procedurally chilling and irritatingly limitless in scope.

    New regulations now allow Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents to search your laptop computer. Every file, photo, e-mail or scrap of confidential data — any of the secrets or intensely personal information you keep closely guarded — is now subject to the spotlight of inspection and possible seizure without any “reasonable suspicion.”

    The rule extends to all electronic devices: your cell phone, your personal digital assistant, your iPod or iPhone. Ironically, the rule prohibits CBP agents from inspecting any unopened letters without a warrant, as long as those letters are in the postal system. So, while en route to the old country, your letter to grandma asking for her secret goulash recipe has more protection than the confidential merger agreements living on your hard drive. […]

    We increasingly live our lives online, filling our computers with confidential business information, personal writings, a record of our associations, banking transactions and health-care information. The same information locked in a desk drawer would be entitled to full Fourth Amendment protections. But in an environment where technology has far outstripped the law, a digital “strip search” at the border without any suspicion is perfectly legal. […] 

    The situation has drawn the ire of Congress; Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have urged CBP to reconsider its policy.

    “If you asked [U.S. residents] whether the government has a right to open their laptops, read their documents and e-mails, look at their photographs and examine the Web sites they have visited, all without any suspicion of wrongdoing, I think those same Americans would say that the government has absolutely no right to do that,” Feingold said in his capacity as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property. “And if you asked them whether that actually happens, they would say, ‘Not in the United States of America.'”

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