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Homeland Security concludes laptop searches at borders don't violate civil rights

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SF security camera privacy stock 1024
SF security camera privacy stock 1024

Years after the Department of Homeland Security said it would consider the civil liberty implications of searching electronic devices of people crossing country lines, it's published a report — and determined that few changes are needed. Released on January 29th, a two-page summary (PDF) from the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties concludes that electronic devices like computers can be searched even without "reasonable suspicion," a lower barrier than faced elsewhere in the country. While people can refuse to give up passwords to the DHS or take other action, they may be detained or have their devices confiscated for doing so.

The overall authority to conduct border searches without suspicion or warrant is clear and longstanding, and courts have not treated searches of electronic devices any differently than searches of other objects. We conclude that CBP’s and ICE’s current border search policies comply with the Fourth Amendment. We also conclude that imposing a requirement that officers have reasonable suspicion in order to conduct a border search of an electronic device would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefits."

The committee did conclude that while it wasn't required, having more information about why searches were performed would be beneficial, saying this had already been implemented. Overall, the decision isn't terribly unexpected. Suspicionless border searches of electronic devices were first upheld in 2008, and they've continued more or less unabated since then.

"The overall authority to conduct border searches without suspicion or warrant is clear and longstanding."

Critics have argued that devices that can hold as much personal information as laptops or phones shouldn't be treated the same as physical objects, and lawsuits are ongoing, with citizens alleging that they've been singled out because of their political actions or beliefs — something the DHS denies has happened. Though challenges are likely to continue, Homeland Security has signaled clearly that it doesn't expect anything to change in the future.