The age-old struggle between security and liberty has a new battle: the way border officials deal with electronic devices.
The American Civil Liberties Union is leading a lawsuit over the Department of Homeland Security’s policy on laptop searches. It is challenging the DHS’ right to search electronic devices, copy data and even seize the equipment, without any suspicion of wrongdoing.
The lawsuit, which is being filed alongside the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, cites the specific example of a 26-year-old Islamic Studies student who had his laptop seized for 11 days after being questioned on a Montreal-New York train.
The case also makes mention of press photographers and lawyers traveling abroad and, thanks to the DHS policies, being concerned about their ability to protect confidential information and sources.
The ACLU has also released data obtained under freedom of information laws about DHS policies and the number of travelers whose equipment was searched. They show 6,500 searches in a 20 month period (45% on US citizens’ property), which 282 cases in a year of data being transferred to other federal agencies.
A spokesman for the DHS told the Wall Street Journal that ” While we cannot comment on pending litigation, searches of laptops and other electronic media during secondary inspection are a targeted tool that [Customs and Border Protection] uses in limited circumstances to ensure that dangerous people and unlawful goods do not enter our country.”
The DHS position is that government agencies have the same right to search electronic data devices without cause as they do with physical containers such as suitcases or backpacks. That may be a central point if the lawsuit goes to trial as the ACLU maintains that electronic data has a higher degree of confidentiality than physical possessions carried by travellers.