UPDATE: The San Francisco Chronicle has a story on documents released to the Asian Law Caucus and EFF under FOIA. “The Bush administration has overturned a 22-year-old policy and now allows customs agents to seize, read and copy documents from travelers at airports and borders without suspicion of wrongdoing, civil rights lawyers in San Francisco said Tuesday in releasing records obtained in a lawsuit.”
The U.S. government has quietly recast policies that affect the way information is gathered from U.S. citizens and others crossing the border and what is done with it, including relaxing a two-decade-old policy that placed a high bar on federal agents copying travelers’ personal material, according to newly released documents.
The policy changes, civil liberties advocates say, also raise concerns about the guidelines under which border officers may share data copied from laptop computers and cellphones with other agencies and the types of questions they are allowed to ask American citizens.
In July, the Department of Homeland Security disclosed policies that showed that federal agents may copy books, documents, and the data on laptops and other electronic devices without suspecting a traveler of wrongdoing. But what DHS did not disclose was that since 1986 and until last year, the government generally required a higher standard: Federal agents needed probable cause that a law was being broken before they could copy material a traveler was bringing into the country.
The changes are part of a broader trend across the government to harness technology in the fight against terrorism. But they are taking place largely without public input or review, critics said, raising concerns that federal border agents are acting without proper guidelines or oversight and that policies are being adopted that do not adequately protect travelers’ civil liberties when they are being questioned or their belongings searched.
The expansive powers claimed by DHS are chilling. Consider just how much you have on your PDA or laptop. Even if it is all legal, do you want to lose control of who sees it, when, and in what context?