U.S. Policy: We Can And Will Seize And Copy Your Laptop For No Reason
Sherman Oaks, California
The U.S. government revealed this month that it can seize and copy the laptops of citizens returning from abroad – for any reason or no reason.
The policy, which you can read here, is not limited to laptops; all “documents or electronic devices” are subject to arbitrary seizure.
“Arbitrary” is not an exaggeration. The policy reads:
“In the course of a border search, and absent individualized suspicion, officers can review and analyze the information transported by any individual attempting to enter, reenter, depart, pass through, or reside in the United States, subject to the requirements and limitations provided herein.” (Emphasis added.)
The “requirements and limitations herein” include language about returning property and destroying copies if no incriminating evidence is found, but the five-page policy contains a conspicuous omission: no rules were drafted to govern when a Customs and Border Protection officer can seize your documents or electronics.
The policy generally states CBP's mission is to ensure compliance with “customs, immigration, and other Federal laws at the border.” But the policy's express reference to searches without individualized suspicion means that a CBP officer can seize items and copy data without any evidence or suspicion that a federal crime has been broken.
An uptight CBP officer who does not like the way you dress can seize your iPod. A bitter, sexually repressed CBP officer can copy all of the photos of you and your lover stored in your camera. And, it goes without saying, these petty Pol Pots can and will seize your property if you question or resist their authority in any manner.
Although these regulations were released two weeks ago, I haven't blogged about them because this topic both depresses and angers me.
The topic depresses me because the U.S. government, which enjoys broad authority at international borders, has decided that standard-less searches are an acceptable way to treat its citizens. The humblest student of government can see that this non-policy is an invitation to abuse.
The topic angers me because, except for a small core of libertarians and travel rights activists, no one cares. The government publicly states that it can seize and copy your most personal data without any basis in fact or law – all because you carry a device over a border – and there's little outcry or outrage. A bill or two have been introduced in Congress, and they'll go nowhere. People are more concerned about a Chinese girl lipsynching during the Olympics.
Pictured: A laptop being inspected by an officer of the TSA (which is separate from CBP).