Judge Rules Computer Searches, Seizures Legal at US Borders

Tuesday, 31 Dec 2013 09:33 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The Department of Homeland Security can keep searching laptop computers at the nation's borders, a federal judge has ruled in his dismissal of a lawsuit filed by civil-liberties groups that had contended the practice was unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed their lawsuit challenging the DHS policy in 2010, The Hill reported. The policy allowed searches even if there was no suspicion of illegality.

Officials at the border search and copy contents of people's laptop computers and other devices thousands of times a year, government documents say. Travelers may be detained for short periods of time even if there is no reasonable suspicion they have broken a law.

But while the ACLU and other groups say such searches violate Americans' protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, Judge Edward Korman said there are exceptions when an international border is involved.

Further, he said, people such as journalists, lawyers, and others should not expect their sensitive information to be protected while they are traveling abroad, The Huffington Post reported.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on the behalf of French-American Pascal Abidor, whose laptop was confiscated at the Canadian border, for the National Press Photographers Association.

Korman said the groups suing to stop the DHS searches did not face a "substantial risk that their electronic devices will be subject to a search or seizure without reasonable suspicion."

Further, Korman said, policies for border agents are sensitive to privacy and confidentiality issues, and "contain significant precautionary measures to be taken with respect to the handling of privileged and other sensitive materials."

Abidor said his personal files were searched while Border Patrol officials had his laptop for 11 days.

Korman, though, ruled that the agents had "reasonable suspicion" to search the files, because the man had recently returned from Lebanon and had photos of rallies by terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas. Abidor at the time was a McGill University doctoral student.

Computer users should also expect searches on trips overseas, such as to the United Kingdom, where former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald's partner David Miranda was stopped recently so agents could search his storage devices, The Huffington Post reported.

"This is enough to suggest that it would be foolish, if not irresponsible, for plaintiffs to store truly private or confidential information on electronic devices that are carried and used overseas," Korman wrote.

The ACLU is considering an appeal. Attorney Catherine Crump said the judge's decision was disappointing, but "these searches are part of a broader pattern of aggressive government surveillance that collects information on too many innocent people, under lax standards, and without adequate oversight."

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