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Clarity Sought on Electronics Searches

The U.S. government has argued in a pending court case that its authority to protect the country's border extends to looking at information stored in electronic devices such as laptops without any suspicion of a crime. In border searches, it regards a laptop the same as a suitcase.

"It should not matter . . . whether documents and pictures are kept in 'hard copy' form in an executive's briefcase or stored digitally in a computer. The authority of customs officials to search the former should extend equally to searches of the latter," the government argued in the child pornography case being heard by a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco.

As more and more people travel with laptops, BlackBerrys and cellphones, the government's laptop-equals-suitcase position is raising red flags.

"It's one thing to say it's reasonable for government agents to open your luggage," said David D. Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University. "It's another thing to say it's reasonable for them to read your mind and everything you have thought over the last year. What a laptop records is as personal as a diary but much more extensive. It records every Web site you have searched. Every e-mail you have sent. It's as if you're crossing the border with your home in your suitcase."

If the government's position on searches of electronic files is upheld, new risks will confront anyone who crosses the border with a laptop or other device, said Mark Rasch, a technology security expert with FTI Consulting and a former federal prosecutor. "Your kid can be arrested because they can't prove the songs they downloaded to their iPod were legally downloaded," he said. "Lawyers run the risk of exposing sensitive information about their client. Trade secrets can be exposed to customs agents with no limit on what they can do with it. Journalists can expose sources, all because they have the audacity to cross an invisible line."

Hollinger said customs officers "are trained to protect confidential information."

Shirin Sinnar, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, said that by scrutinizing the Web sites people search and the phone numbers they've stored on their cellphones, "the government is going well beyond its traditional role of looking for contraband and really is looking into the content of people's thoughts and ideas and their lawful political activities."

If conducted inside the country, such searches would require a warrant and probable cause, legal experts said.

Customs sometimes singles out passengers for extensive questioning and searches based on "information from various systems and specific techniques for selecting passengers," including the Interagency Border Inspection System, according to a statement on the CBP Web site. "CBP officers may, unfortunately, inconvenience law-abiding citizens in order to detect those involved in illicit activities," the statement said. But the factors agents use to single out passengers are not transparent, and travelers generally have little access to the data to see whether there are errors.

Although Customs said it does not profile by race or ethnicity, an officers' training guide states that "it is permissible and indeed advisable to consider an individual's connections to countries that are associated with significant terrorist activity."

"What's the difference between that and targeting people because they are Arab or Muslim?" Cole said, noting that the countries the government focuses on are generally predominantly Arab or Muslim.

It is the lack of clarity about the rules that has confounded travelers and raised concerns from groups such as the Asian Law Caucus, which said that as a result, their lawyers cannot fully advise people how they may exercise their rights during a border search. The lawsuit says a Freedom of Information Act request was filed with Customs last fall but that no information has been received.

Kamran Habib, a software engineer with Cisco Systems, has had his laptop and cellphone searched three times in the past year. Once, in San Francisco, an officer "went through every number and text message on my cellphone and took out my SIM card in the back," said Habib, a permanent U.S. resident. "So now, every time I travel, I basically clean out my phone. It's better for me to keep my colleagues and friends safe than to get them on the list as well."

Udy's company, Radius, organizes business trips for 100,000 travelers a day, from companies around the world. She says her firm supports strong security measures. "Where we get angry is when we don't know what they're for."

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.


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