Federal agents at the border may seize a traveler’s laptop computer and other electronic devices and hold them for an unspecified period of time even if they have no reason to suspect any wrongdoing.
Under newly disclosed policies, dated July 16 and issued by two agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, officials may also share copies of the laptop’s contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons, The Washington Post reports.
The rules apply to anyone entering the U.S. — including American citizens — and cover hard drives, flash drives, cellphones, iPods, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes.
The policies state that agents may “detain” laptops “for a reasonable period of time,” and the action may take place “absent individualized suspicion.”
An increasing number of international travelers have reported that their laptops and other devices have been seized, for months in at least one case, according to The Post.
Computers contain a vast amount of private information about family, finances and health, which could easily be copied and stored in government databases, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has complained.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wrote in a recent opinion piece that laptops and other electronic devices contain “the most dangerous contraband,” and said searches have discovered “violent jihadist materials” and child pornography.
DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa told AFP, "Since the founding of the republic, we have had broad authority to conduct searches at the border to prevent the entrance into this country of dangerous persons and goods."
But Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "Any smart terrorist won't bother putting dangerous images or documents on their computer or cellphone or Blackberry or digital camera. Rather they'll put them on a remote server and access them when they have entered the U.S."
Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who is probing the government’s border search practices, said “the policies that have been disclosed are truly alarming.”
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