The Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights watchdog has concluded that travelers along the nation’s borders may have their electronics seized and the contents of those devices examined for any reason whatsoever — all in the name of national security.
The DHS, which secures the nation’s border, in 2009 announced that it would conduct a “Civil Liberties Impact Assessment” of its suspicionless search-and-seizure policy pertaining to electronic devices “within 120 days.” More than three years later, the DHS office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties published a two-page executive summary of its findings.
“We also conclude that imposing a requirement that officers have reasonable suspicion in order to conduct a border search of an electronic device would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefits,” the executive summary said.
The memo highlights the friction between today’s reality that electronic devices have become virtual extensions of ourselves housing everything from e-mail to instant-message chats to photos and our papers and effects — juxtaposed against the government’s stated quest for national security.
The President George W. Bush administration first announced the suspicionless, electronics search rules in 2008. The President Barack Obama administration followed up with virtually the same rules a year later. Between 2008 and 2010, 6,500 persons had their electronic devices searched along the U.S. border, according to DHS data.
According to legal precedent, the Fourth Amendment — the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures — does not apply along the border. By the way, the government contends the Fourth-Amendment-Free Zone stretches 100 miles inland from the nation’s actual border.
The Constitution Project, a bipartisan think tank, has in the past called upon the DHS to amend its policy:
If a man’s home is his castle, then it might be argued his computer in its many guises is the key to that castle. It is not uncommon in this digital age for people to maintain links to online bank accounts, copies of their tax returns, and myriad other personal data on their laptops, PDAs, and smart phones.
It is because of this wealth of private electronically stored information that The Constitution Project (TCP), a bipartisan think tank in Washington, has published a new report. In it they call upon the Department of Homeland Security to amend its policy on warrantless searches at border crossings to exclude electronic devices.