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    Washington Post: Travelers’ Laptops May Be Detained At Border; No Suspicion Required Under DHS Policies

    The Washington Post reveals:

    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.

    Basically, the federal government is saying that border officials can take whatever they desire from US citizens and others, for as long as the officials want, and share it with whomever they please, without any hint of wrongdoing. Here are the Customs and Border Protection policy (pdf) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy (pdf) (both agencies are within the Department of Homeland Security).

    The Washington Post reports:

    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.'”

    In a previous post, I discussed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s opinion column on warrantless, suspicionless border searches of electronic devices. He said:

    We are, of course, mindful of travelers’ privacy. No devices are kept permanently unless there is probable cause. Likewise, any U.S. citizen’s information that is copied to facilitate a search is retained only if relevant to a lawful purpose such as a criminal or national security investigation, and otherwise is erased. Special privacy procedures govern the handling of commercial and attorney-client information.

    At the time, I noted several questions were unanswered because the official policies concerning these searches and seizures were unknown. Even with the publication of these policies, questions remain.

    • What protections are there against unscrupulous officials using this as an end-run around the warrant requirement, using Customs officers for non-border security purposes, diverting border patrol employees resources from their official duties?
    • Also, how many individuals’ devices are searched and seized each week, month or year? (Chertoff stated in his opinion column that only a “fraction” of individuals who are sent to secondary screening — that group itself he says is a “tiny percentage” of all travelers. Yet he offers no official numbers.)

    The Bush administration appears to have given border officials seemingly unlimited powers to search, seize, share, or “analyze the information transported by any individual attempting to enter, reenter, depart, pass through, or reside in the United States.”

    The powers are wrapped up in the usual reasons — national security, child pornography, drug trafficking. However, individuals should remember that the broad authority can be used for any or no reason upon any or all persons at the border.

    For those who are interested, security expert Bruce Schneier and CNet News have both published guides on how to protect your laptops and other devices from such searches.

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