Court Rules Customs Agents Can Collect Data From Laptops & Cellphones Without Cause

Some visitors and citizens of the United States may be shocked to learn that their computers, cell phones and data devices are now subject to search and data retrieval upon entry into the U.S., even without cause or suspicion. On April 19th, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that all computers and data devices are the same as luggage in that they can be searched without cause, and that all collected data may be stored indefinitely. More, inside…

Until recently, the law said that unwarranted computer searches constituted an “intrusion of the mind”, but those days are now over in light of the new rulings. The latest rulings stem from a case where airline passenger, Timothy Arnold, was pulled aside for secondary questioning upon his arrival into LAX from The Philippines in July, 2005. Customs agents searched his laptop and found images depicting child pornography. Initially, it was ruled that agents didn’t have reasonable suspicion to search his laptop, however, that ruling was overturned. Arnold was later charged with possessing and transporting child porn and with traveling to a foreign country with the intention of having sex with children.

U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien praised the decision, “The government needs to have the ability to restrict harmful material from entering the country, whether that be weapons used by terrorists, dangerous narcotics or child pornography.” However, many disagree.

Travelers now have new concerns about the security of their private and corporate data. Some fear that poorly trained officers could accidentally corrupt or erase data during such searches. Also unknown, is where and how long data will be stored, perhaps making it vulnerable to theft or breaches. As it stands, all retrieved data can be kept indefinitely.

Despite the governments’ new far-reaching power into your privacy there are a few things you can do to help secure your data when you travel. CNET offers a handy article that outlines different types of encryption and other techniques that can help keep your data secure.

The added delays and headaches seem almost insignificant when considering how much our personal liberties are being systematically revoked. We can understand the need to search for weapons and contraband but suspicionless searches of data is a bold new level of privacy invasion. Our laptops and personal information, once considered an extension of the mind, are now considered luggage. We wonder how long it will be until our minds are also considered luggage and subject to search without suspicion.

Border Agents Can Search Laptops Without Cause, Court Rules [Information Week]
9th Circuit OKs Border Guards’ Search of Traveler’s Laptop []
Security guide to customs-proofing your laptop [CNET news]
(Photo: Getty)