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Surrendering Your Fourth Amendment Rights at the Border

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August 26, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Today the ACLU filed a lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) demanding records about the CBP’s policy of searching travelers’ laptops without suspicion of wrongdoing. The lawsuit was filed to enforce a Freedom of Information Act request we filed in June, when we requested the criteria used for selecting passengers for suspicionless searches, the number of people who have been subject to the searches, the number of devices and documents retained and the reasons for their retention.

In the policy, the CBP asserts the right to read the information on travelers’ laptops “absent individualized suspicion.” So that means searching all files saved on laptops, including personal financial information, family photographs and lists of Web sites travelers have visited, without having any reason to believe a traveler has broken the law.

And after they’re done searching your laptop, they also reserve the right to search “documents, books, pamphlets and other printed material, as well as computers, disks, hard drives and other electronic or digital storage devices.” (So you might want to reconsider sending that risque email to your spouse from your Blackberry, ’cause the CBP might see that as well).

Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t carry, send or receive any sensitive or private documents that you might need for work. As we pointed out last year, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) opposes the CBP policy because it threatens companies’ ability to do business with the rest of the world, especially those companies that are trying to keep trade secrets, you know, secret. Testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution last year, Susan Gurley of the ACTE said: “[T]he unjustified retention and/or copying of proprietary and sensitive business information pursuant to the warrantless seizure of laptops and other electronic devices imposes both a personal and economic hardship on business travelers and their corporations.”

Talk about kicking the economy while it’s down.

Oh, and this policy includes everyone crossing the border, whether they’re U.S. citizens or not. Think of it as equal opportunity virtual frisking.

We’ll of course keep you posted as this lawsuit progresses. But in the meantime, if your laptop or electronic device has been searched at the border, let us know about it by emailing “legalintake [at]”

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