ACLU sues the Department of Homeland Security over laptop searches

An airport screener looks at a laptop computer. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol now has the ability to copy the contents of laptops from any travelers entering the United States. (AP)

The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday sued the Department of Homeland Security in an effort to uncover documents related to laptop searches at the border.

“The ACLU believes that suspicionless searches of laptops violate the First and Fourth Amendments,” the group wrote in the suit, filed in a New York District Court.

In July 2008, the Customs and Border Protection agency within DHS published formal guidelines for laptop border searches that gave CBP officials permission to search laptops and electronic devices at the border. Court cases on the topic have generally found that citizens should have diminished expectations of privacy when re-entering the country because the U.S. has a right to protect itself and control what crosses its borders.

Critics of the policy claim that laptop searches are an invasion of privacy – a personal computer holds a lot more information than a suitcase full of clothes or briefcase full of paperwork. What’s to stop CBP from copying the contents of your computer and keeping it on file indefinitely, they have argued

As a result, the ACLU wants to know exactly what types of data the government has collected. The organization first filed a Freedom of Information request in June 2009, but after some back and forth between the ACLU and DHS, the ACLU said that it had “exhausted the applicable administrative remedies” and that “DHS and its components have wrongfully withheld the requested records from the ACLU.”

The ACLU wants DHS to hand over the documents, waive any fees associated with document recovery, and pay the organization’s costs and attorneys’ fees.

“Traveling with a laptop shouldn’t mean the government gets a free pass to rifle through your personal papers,” Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group, said in a statement. “This sort of broad and invasive search is exactly what the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches are designed to prevent.”

The issue is currently under debate in Congress as well. Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, introduced a bill in January that would impose stricter rules on border laptop searches. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, introduced similar legislation in September 2008, and said recently that he plans to re-introduce that bill.

“The ACLU intends to participate in ongoing debates over the pending congressional legislation,” the ACLU said in its suit.

In May 2009, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told Feingold and the Senate Commerce Committee that the department was in the process of reviewing its laptop search policy, but could not provide an exact date on when the revamped policy would be ready.

August 26, 2009

Source: PCMAG

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