Homeland Security Vs. The Constitution

September 22, 2010

A federal lawsuit has been brought against the Department of Homeland Security in the Eastern District of New York,  alleging that border computer searches violate traveler’s privacy and free speech rights.  According to the Washington Post, the ACLU is bringing the suit on behalf of a number of plaintiffs, including Pascal Abidor.  Abidor, a 26-year-old doctoral student and dual U.S.-French citizen, was on an Amtrak train from Montreal to New York to visit family last spring when his laptop was searched and confiscated by CBP officers.

The DHS, along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, assert that officers can search any computer, cell phone, or other electronic device without probable cause or specific reason. According to Electronista,  “Border officers reportedly conducted notebook or electronic searches on 6,671 separate occasions between October 2008 and June 2010, with US citizens accounting for slightly less than half of the searches.”
According to the Washington Post article, the government contends that ” that its broad authority to protect the border extends to reviewing information stored in a traveler’s laptop, cellphone or other electronic device, even if the traveler is not suspected of involvement in criminal activity. In the government’s view, a laptop is no different than a suitcase.”
I have trouble understanding how these legitimate security concerns justify the wholesale disregard of the Fourth Amendment.  As this post put it, “whether you’re conservative, liberal, libertarian, or “none of the above,” if you want to protect the privacy of your laptop computer and your Blackberry or i-phone  against unlimited and unwarranted government snooping, you ought to write the ACLU a thank you note, if not a check.”
So far, the federal courts have found these searches permissible, but those cases all involved child pornography. See this post for a look at recent decisions.
However, this time the plaintiffs are far more sympathetic-press photographers and an innocent college student.

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