Agents Can Search And Seize Laptops At U.S. Border

    August 1, 2008

U.S. federal officials have disclosed that agents at the U.S. border may seize a traveler’s laptop or other electronic devices with no limits on how long they can hold them and without any suspicion of wrongdoing.

The Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed the new policies that allow agents to search a laptop’s contents and share the information with other agencies and private organizations for language translation, data decryption or other reasons.

Russell Feingold
 Russell Feingold

"The policies that have been disclosed are truly alarming," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). "After seeing them, I am more convinced than ever that legislation is needed in order to protect law-abiding Americans from this gross violation of their privacy. I intend to introduce such legislation soon."

The DHS said the policies apply to anyone entering the country, including U.S. citizens, and are needed to prevent terrorism.

The policies have long been in place but were not disclosed until rights groups and business travel groups pressured the government to release information on its procedures after more travelers reported that their laptops, cell phones and other electronic devices had been seized at the border and held for months in some cases.

The policies cover "any device capable of storing information in digital or analog form," including hard drives, flash drives, cell phones, iPods, pagers, video and audio tapes. It also applies to written documents including books, pamphlets and "written materials commonly referred to as ‘pocket trash’ or ‘pocket litter’."

"They’re saying they can rifle through all the information in a traveler’s laptop without having a smidgen of evidence that the traveler is breaking the law," said Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology.