DHS Reveals Some Data On Border Laptop Searches

from the was-that-so-tough? dept

The Department of Homeland Security has pushed hard for the past few years to make sure it retains the right to search your laptop at the border with no real limitations. It is, indeed, (as defenders of this policy always like to point out) established law that the border is not in the country, so Constitutional 4th Amendment rights do not apply. That still doesn't make it right. I, like many others, would not have a problem with searches due to probable cause. Nor do we have any real problem with searches of physical luggage at the border. But a blank slate, seems like a bit much -- for a few reasons. First, the purpose of a border search is to see what you're bringing into the country. But, when it comes to digital data, no one's bringing it across the border to get it into the country. You could just send it over any number of internet protocols to get it into the country without using a laptop. So, the very rationale doesn't make sense. Second, when people travel, they specifically pick and choose what physical goods to put into their luggage. With a computer, the situation is the opposite. You automatically bring everything (including, potentially access to remote drives).

Still, DHS has insisted it wants to keep this right, even as some politicians have looked to protect against laptop searches at the border. Earlier this year, DHS put out slightly clearer rules, but which still allowed for no probable cause in doing a search.

One big question hanging over all of this, however, was how often such searches took place. Thomas O'Toole alerts us to a new DHS report that finally reveals the numbers -- and, it's at least marginally good news: these sorts of searches happen very rarely. That's a good thing and suggests that the policy isn't widely abused:
Of the more than 144 million travelers that arrived at U.S. ports of entry between Oct. 1, 2008 and May 5, 2009, searches of electronic media were conducted on 1,947 of them, the DHS said.

Of this number, 696 searches were performed on laptop computers, the DHS said. Even here, not all of the laptops received an "in-depth" search of the device, the report states. A search sometimes may have been as simple as turning on a device to ensure that it was what it purported to be. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents conducted "in-depth" searches on 40 laptops, but the report did not describe what an in-depth search entailed.
I'm certainly happy to see that such a policy is used so rarely, but I still question why it should be used at all.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Sep 2009 @ 10:04am

    Re: Used so rarely?

    I had the lens of a video camera damaged because an inspector felt the need to poke it to check it was actually a camera and not my method of smuggling something onto the plane.
    So, too, I have been required to turn on my laptop.
    As a little old lady, I don't look like any previous ne'er-do-wells, so it must be a common thing to ask, and I bet this action is rarely reported. I am surprised it showed up in the report and the fact that it did makes me suspicious about the quality of the data.

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