A federal court issued a ruling last week that upholds the right of law enforcement authorities to conduct warrantless searches of laptop computers at U.S. borders. The precedent reinforced by that ruling should outrage not only anyone who travels internationally with a laptop, but anyone with any sense of justice.
According to a report on Computerworld, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas denied a motion to suppress evidence that was gathered by U.S. Customs agents during the warrantless search of a laptop belonging to alleged child pornographer Sandeep Verma. Verma, whose laptop was searched upon his return to Texas from Bogota, Columbia, was already under investigation for possessing child pornography. That being the case, it would seem that it would have been a simple procedural matter to obtain a warrant to search his laptop.
What's really disturbing is that even if a person isn't under investigation-and in fact, even if there is no reasonable cause for suspicion whatsoever-authorities have the green light to search his laptop. According to Computerworld:
In response to Verma's motion, U.S. District Court Judge Gary Miller ruled that the searches were constitutional with or even without reasonable cause or suspicion. Miller dismissed Verma's contention that the computer search at the airport had been non-routine or unduly intrusive.
"The court finds that reviewing the files of a computer does not rise to the level of "invasion of the privacy and dignity of the individual to make the search non-routine," he wrote in a 14-page ruling. "Even had the search of the computer been as exhaustive as Verma claims, the court is not convinced it would be considered non-routine" and needing reasonable cause or particularized suspicion for it to be conducted, he wrote. The ruling is the latest in which courts have held that customs agents do not always need to have reasonable cause or suspicion to search through the contents of a computer or other electronic device at U.S. borders.
In 2004, the Supreme Court noted that a reasonable suspicion requirement applies largely to searches of individuals and not necessarily of their personal property. Last August, the Department of Homeland Security's privacy office supported the right of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to copy, download, retain or seize any content from electronic devices, or the devices themselves, without assigning any specific reason for doing so. The DHS noted that such searches were no different from searches of briefcases and backpacks and were needed to interdict and investigate violations of federal law at U.S. borders.
Wrong. The search of a computer is fundamentally different from the search of a briefcase or backpack. When a customs agent searches your briefcase, he doesn't routinely open up an envelope and read your personal correspondence. He doesn't open up a folder and gawk at your personal photos.
A personal computer is an extension of a person's identity. Having that part of our identity invaded by a search without a warrant is to be victimized and violated just as brutally as if we were victimized and violated by criminal activity.