Clarity Sought on Electronics Searches

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By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Nabila Mango, a therapist and a U.S. citizen who has lived in the country since 1965, had just flown in from Jordan last December when, she said, she was detained at customs and her cellphone was taken from her purse. Her daughter, waiting outside San Francisco International Airport, tried repeatedly to call her during the hour and a half she was questioned. But after her phone was returned, Mango saw that records of her daughter's calls had been erased.

A few months earlier in the same airport, a tech engineer returning from a business trip to London objected when a federal agent asked him to type his password into his laptop computer. "This laptop doesn't belong to me," he remembers protesting. "It belongs to my company." Eventually, he agreed to log on and stood by as the officer copied the Web sites he had visited, said the engineer, a U.S. citizen who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of calling attention to himself.

Maria Udy, a marketing executive with a global travel management firm in Bethesda, said her company laptop was seized by a federal agent as she was flying from Dulles International Airport to London in December 2006. Udy, a British citizen, said the agent told her he had "a security concern" with her. "I was basically given the option of handing over my laptop or not getting on that flight," she said.

The seizure of electronics at U.S. borders has prompted protests from travelers who say they now weigh the risk of traveling with sensitive or personal information on their laptops, cameras or cellphones. In some cases, companies have altered their policies to require employees to safeguard corporate secrets by clearing laptop hard drives before international travel.

Today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Asian Law Caucus, two civil liberties groups in San Francisco, plan to file a lawsuit to force the government to disclose its policies on border searches, including which rules govern the seizing and copying of the contents of electronic devices. They also want to know the boundaries for asking travelers about their political views, religious practices and other activities potentially protected by the First Amendment. The question of whether border agents have a right to search electronic devices at all without suspicion of a crime is already under review in the federal courts.

The lawsuit was inspired by two dozen cases, 15 of which involved searches of cellphones, laptops, MP3 players and other electronics. Almost all involved travelers of Muslim, Middle Eastern or South Asian background, many of whom, including Mango and the tech engineer, said they are concerned they were singled out because of racial or religious profiling.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, Lynn Hollinger, said officers do not engage in racial profiling "in any way, shape or form." She said that "it is not CBP's intent to subject travelers to unwarranted scrutiny" and that a laptop may be seized if it contains information possibly tied to terrorism, narcotics smuggling, child pornography or other criminal activity.

The reason for a search is not always made clear. The Association of Corporate Travel Executives, which represents 2,500 business executives in the United States and abroad, said it has tracked complaints from several members, including Udy, whose laptops have been seized and their contents copied before usually being returned days later, said Susan Gurley, executive director of ACTE. Gurley said none of the travelers who have complained to the ACTE raised concerns about racial or ethnic profiling. Gurley said none of the travelers were charged with a crime.

"I was assured that my laptop would be given back to me in 10 or 15 days," said Udy, who continues to fly into and out of the United States. She said the federal agent copied her log-on and password, and asked her to show him a recent document and how she gains access to Microsoft Word. She was asked to pull up her e-mail but could not because of lack of Internet access. With ACTE's help, she pressed for relief. More than a year later, Udy has received neither her laptop nor an explanation.

ACTE last year filed a Freedom of Information Act request to press the government for information on what happens to data seized from laptops and other electronic devices. "Is it destroyed right then and there if the person is in fact just a regular business traveler?" Gurley asked. "People are quite concerned. They don't want proprietary business information floating, not knowing where it has landed or where it is going. It increases the anxiety level."

Udy has changed all her work passwords and no longer banks online. Her company, Radius, has tightened its data policies so that traveling employees must access company information remotely via an encrypted channel, and their laptops must contain no company information.

At least two major global corporations, one American and one Dutch, have told their executives not to carry confidential business material on laptops on overseas trips, Gurley said. In Canada, one law firm has instructed its lawyers to travel to the United States with "blank laptops" whose hard drives contain no data. "We just access our information through the Internet," said Lou Brzezinski, a partner at Blaney McMurtry, a major Toronto law firm. That approach also holds risks, but "those are hacking risks as opposed to search risks," he said.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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