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Judges Urged to Curtail Random Searches of Travelers' Laptops
San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) urged an appeals court today to review a flawed decision allowing random and invasive searches of travelers' computers at the U.S. border.
The news media has reported extensively on these searches as well as the surprise and anger felt by American travelers when they are singled out for inspection. In a typical search, U.S. border officials will turn on the computer and then open and review files. If agents see something of interest, they may confiscate the computer, copy its contents, and sometimes provide a copy to the Department of Justice -- even when the traveler is not suspected of criminal activity. In some cases, travelers have never gotten their computers back from the government.
In an amicus brief filed today, EFF and ACTE asked the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear and reverse an appeals panel decision in United States v. Arnold, which upheld this blanket search and seizure power. While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that customs and border agents can perform "routine" searches at the border without a warrant or even reasonable suspicion, these ongoing baseless searches of electronic devices at America's borders are unconstitutionally invasive.
"Searching a laptop is very different from searching a briefcase. Your computer contains a vast amount of information about your private life, including details about your family, your finances, and your health," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Lee Tien. "All that information can be easily copied, transferred, and stored in government databases, just because you were chosen for a random inspection."
These suspicionless laptop searches and data seizures violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. The unique nature of electronic information stored on computers and other portable devices requires the courts to recognize a standard that protects the privacy of Americans in the Information Age.
"The implications of unfettered data collection are staggering," said ACTE Executive Director Susan Gurley. "Border authorities may now systematically collect all information on every laptop computer, BlackBerry, or other device carried across our border. The government can then store and search all that data without any justification or oversight by any court. This simply does not square with the Fourth Amendment."
The EFF-ACTE amicus brief was prepared by Arent Fox LLP.
For the full amicus brief:
For more on US v. Arnold:
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Association of Corporate Travel Executives