August 8, 2008 | By Rebecca Jeschke

Public Pressure Mounts Against Invasive Border Searches

Random, invasive laptop searches and other digital privacy violations at the U.S. border are facing increasing pressure from the public and Congress. One of the big complaints EFF and others have had is the lack of information and accountability about the intrusive examination of computer files, cell phone directories, and other private information -- and the indiscriminate copying of that data -- as Americans come back home from overseas.

The good news is that the government has finally made public its policy guidelines for digital searches and data seizures at U.S. borders. The bad news is that it is claiming expansive powers to randomly search your laptop, decrypt and translate any information on the machine, and even seize the device for an "off-site" search. As news coverage of the guidelines have pointed out, there is no limit to how long the government can keep your computer, iPod, camera, or any other digital device, leaving travelers just about helpless to protect their personal property and private information from the whims of a border agent.

EFF has long been involved in the battle against these random and intrusive searches, and has called on Congress to crack down on the government's claim of blanket search and seizure power of your electronic devices and the data inside. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren has decided to take action, introducing a bill to curb the baseless searches. (Update: Reps. Ron Paul and Eliot Engle have also introduced a border search bill). In the meantime, EFF is working to uncover more information about the border search program with a Freedom of Information Act suit filed with the Asian Law Caucus.

The government is working hard as well. The Transportation Security Administration recently announced that its Secure Flight program should start operating before the end of the year. Secure Flight will allow the government to collect the passenger records you are obliged to hand over to airlines when you travel, and then connect that personal data with other government databases. But as EFF pointed out in comments to the Department of Homeland Security last year, individuals will be prevented from discovering what data is kept on them, lack the ability to correct that data, and lack the right to judicial review to force data to be corrected. Check out our Travel Screening resources for more.


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