The Department of Homeland Security’s Privacy Office has approved the controversial searches, copying and retention of laptops, PDAs, and other digital devices without cause at U.S. borders.
Travelers could soon start seeing notices from the Privacy Office, which last week released a report supporting the right of customs agents to conduct such searches.
The 51-page Privacy Impact Assessment also supported the right of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to copy, download, retain or seize any content from these devices, or the devices themselves, without assigning any specific reason for doing so.
Also, while in many cases searches would be done with the knowledge of the traveler in some situations, the report says, “it is not practicable for law enforcement reasons to inform the traveler that his electronic device has been searched.”
In arriving at the assessment, the Privacy Office argued that such searches of electronic devices were really no different from searches of briefcases and backpacks. They are needed to interdict and investigate violations of federal law at U.S. borders and have been supported by courts in the past, the assessment said.
That conclusion is sure to rile privacy and civil rights advocates, who have been vehemently protesting such border searches for about two years. They have argued that searches of electronic devices without any reasonable cause are very different from similar searches of backpacks and other items by customs agents, because unlike with briefcases and packs, electronic devices are capable of storing far more data, including personal and business data some that could be highly personal or protected.
The Association of Corporate Travel Executives and other groups have warned of potential security breaches when corporate data contained in a laptop or PDA is downloaded by a customs agent as part of a border search. Similar concerns have been raised about data involving client and lawyer privileges, intellectual property, and other sensitive information.