Friday, January 3, 2014

US Border Patrol Can Search Your Laptop and Phone for No Reason

What's the federal government to do when it wants to snag someone's laptop and comb through their personal data, but pesky civil liberties won’t permit it? Wait until the person tries to cross the US border, that's what.

For years, Department of Homeland Security policy has allowed border patrol agents to confiscate and search travelers' personal property without any reasonable suspicion—a special exemption to Americans’ Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure.

The law is meant to thwart terrorism and drug trafficking, but in the digital age when our laptops and smartphones are more of an extension of our private selves than a simple object like a suitcase, the border now also functions like a privacy-free zone where the feds can handily snoop on a target on a hunch.

Yesterday, circuit court Judge Edward Korman ruled to uphold the laptop border search law, dismissing an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that claimed suspicionless searches of personal devices violates privacy and has a chilling effect on free speech.

The suit was filed on behalf of French-American citizen Pascal Abidor in 2010, a then-grad student who was crossing the Canadian border on a train when his laptop was confiscated for 11 days by customs officers, who read his private chats and looked through his photos.

Korman's decision dealt a major blow to privacy activists. He not only ruled that the confiscation was justified by what agents found on Abidor’s laptop—photographs of Hezbollah and Hamas rallies in Lebanon—but that it would have been legal even if they found nothing, since the law doesn’t require any reasonable suspicion for cursory manual searches.
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