Frightening Invasions of Privacy Allowed at the Border

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 1:59 PM EDT

A few years back, I was driving from Vancouver to Seattle with an old high school friend. At the border, we were stopped by an American border agent who asked us some standard questions, then opened the trunk of our car to take a look around. I became alarmed when I heard a familiar series of slow, regular beeps and realized that the agent was clicking through photos on the digital camera in my duffel bag. It felt obviously illegal — there was no cause whatsoever for turning on an electronic device and looking at pictures taken days, weeks, or months earlier.

I complained to friends afterwards, but didn't think much of it. Now I realize it was part of official United States government policy:

Federal agents may take a traveler's laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed.
Also, officials may share copies of the laptop's contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons, according to the policies, dated July 16 and issued by two DHS agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement...

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DHS officials said the newly disclosed policies -- which apply to anyone entering the country, including U.S. citizens -- are reasonable and necessary to prevent terrorism. Officials said such procedures have long been in place but were disclosed last month because of public interest in the matter...

The policies state that officers may "detain" laptops "for a reasonable period of time" to "review and analyze information." This may take place "absent individualized suspicion."

The policies cover "any device capable of storing information in digital or analog form," including hard drives, flash drives, cellphones, iPods, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes. They also cover "all papers and other written documentation," including books, pamphlets and "written materials commonly referred to as 'pocket trash' or 'pocket litter.'"

And the kicker? Customs Deputy Commissioner Jayson Ahern says the policy does not "infringe on Americans' privacy."

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