The Dept. of Homeland Security has finally coughed up its Civil Rights/Civil Liberties Impact Assessment
of its suspicionless electronic device searches performed at border crossings by ICE and CBP agents. It's been a long time coming.
The DHS announced it would take a look at this policy's impact on civil liberties "within 120 days
." That was back in 2009. The report was released (but not publically) in December of 2011. In February of this
year, it finally published a two-page executive summary of its findings for the public's perusal. There wasn't much contained in the release, but what was
included was disturbing enough
. In its own estimation, the DHS felt it complied with the Fourth Amendment but went on to state that imposing a "reasonable suspicion" requirement for device searches would be "operationally harmful" without any "concomitant civil liberties benefit." In other words, the public wouldn't be appreciably better off if these searches didn't violate anyone's rights, but the DHS felt its agencies would be worse off if forced to respect them.
The actual report has finally been pried loose, thanks to a FOIA request by the ACLU. There's a lot of information available in the report, including an explanation as to why the agency feels a "reasonable suspicion" threshold is "inadvisable." This is significant, the ACLU points out, as it's the first time the government has explained why it believes suspicionless searches "enhance" security. It begins with some familiar language and expands on that thought process a bit
[A]dding a heightened [suspicion-based] threshold requirement could be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefit. First, commonplace decisions to search electronic devices might be opened to litigation challenging the reasons for the search. In addition to interfering with a carefully constructed border security system, the litigation could directly undermine national security by requiring the government to produce sensitive investigative and national security information to justify some of the most critical searches. Even a policy change entirely unenforceable by courts might be problematic; we have been presented with some noteworthy CBP and ICE success stories based on hard-to-articulate intuitions or hunches based on officer experience and judgment. Under a reasonable suspicion requirement, officers might hesitate to search an individual's device without the presence of articulable factors capable of being formally defended, despite having an intuition or hunch based on experience that justified a search.
So, a CBP/ICE agent's hunch trumps a US citizen's rights. Rather than take the chance that someone dangerous might pass through its net, the agencies would prefer to be allowed to use "I've got a bad feeling about this" as justification for digging through not just someone's
laptop, but anyone's
laptop. The report supports the agencies' hunch-based investigative processes with anecdotal evidence but no real data.
Any data actually produced comes from outside parties concerned about the First and Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens. The Constitution Project's recommendations for border policy reform are included with the freed documents and it concludes that suspicionless searches not only have a very low "hit rate," but that the policy itself, as it stands now without limitations, actually creates a burden for the CBP and ICE.
Moreover, requiring reasonable suspicion to conduct a search of electronic devices would focus limited law enforcement resources where they can be most effective. Suspicionless searches are not well-suited to identifying and locating contraband or illegal material, as the CBP's own data show. In 2009, for example, only about 5% of the electronic devices searched at the border were seized as a result of the search. Put differently, in the vast majority of instances involving border searches of electronic devices, the traveler has had to needlessly withstand a significant intrusion into his or her privacy for no legitimate law enforcement purpose.
This hit rate puts it right in the neighborhood of another rights-violating law enforcement tactic -- NYC's stop-and-frisk program
. Lots of busywork but very little in the way of results.
But this report is almost more about what it doesn't
include than what it does
. If you're looking for some in-depth discussion of the DHS' views on various civil liberties, you're going to be disappointed. Here's what greets readers when they reach the "Fourth Amendment" section.
This continues for four straight pages. First Amendment? A page and a half of redacted text before this concluding sentence:
The laptop border searches in the ICE and CBP policies do not violate travelers' First Amendment rights as defined by the courts.
Interesting. Of course, the involved agencies don't really seem too concerned about any definitions provided by any court. If they did, they might have paid a bit more attention to a Supreme Court decision dealing directly with the Fourth Amendment.
Even more problematic is the government's claim that the "hard-to-articulate" hunch of a border agent is enough for the government to scrounge around through our personal photos, medical and financial records, email, and whatever other sensitive information may be stored on our laptops and phones... As the Supreme Court explained in Terry v. Ohio, if law enforcement agents are allowed to intrude upon people's rights "based on nothing more substantial than inarticulate hunches," then "the protections of the Fourth Amendment would evaporate, and the people would be ‘secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects,' only in the discretion of the [government]."
This evaporation process seems to be nearly complete in the so-called "Constitution-free zone
" and things continue to get noticeably drier elsewhere. The DHS clearly believes that citizens' Constitutional rights end where its jurisdiction begins -- and unfortunately at this point in time, that's pretty much everywhere.