Electronic searches and seizures at US borders ‘more invasive’ — ACLU

Following the case of David Miranda, whose electronic devices were confiscated in August by British authorities at Heathrow airport, an American watchdog group reports similar abuses of power are happening at US borders.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has released documents
showing how US authorities, exceeding their powers in the name of
protecting the country from terrorism and other threats, are
involved in a widespread, largely secretive program that empowers
the government to search and seize American citizens’ electronic
devices at the border.

According to US government data, an estimated 4,957 travelers to
the US had their electronic devices searched between October 1,
2012 and August 31, 2013, while an additional 4,898 people were
subject to similar searches the previous year.

The ACLU report focused on the case of David House, who
previously worked with the Bradley Manning Support Network. House
was detained by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents at
Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in November 2010.

House’s case is similar to that of Miranda, the partner of Glenn
Greenwald, an investigative journalist with The Guardian who
broke the story on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. British
authorities justified Miranda’s detention for nine hours, and the
confiscation of his electronic devices, under a controversial law
— Schedule 7 of the UK Terrorism Act 2000.

As was the case with House, Miranda was detained by the
authorities and forced to endure a drawn-out criminal

Government agents interrogated House about his political
activities and beliefs. He was also forced to surrender his
laptop, camera and USB drive to officials for seven weeks.

The ACLU report states: “[E]ven after the government returned
House’s physical devices, it continued to actively investigate
copies of his files for nearly six more months

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on House’s behalf, arguing that
the government took action against House solely because of his
association with the Bradley Manning Support Network,
violating both his First Amendment right to freedom of
association and his Fourth Amendment right to be free from
unreasonable searches and seizures.

In March 2012, the judge in the case ruled that even though the
US government does not require a warrant to search people’s
electronic devices at the country’s borders, that power is not
unlimited and First Amendment rights still apply.

Eventually, the US government agreed to a settlement wherein it
would destroy all of the personal data it had acquired from
House’s electronic devices, and also turn over documents related
to its investigation of House and the search of his personal

The ACLU revealed how the Homeland Security Investigations (an
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) subdivision that is now
the second-largest law enforcement agency in the United States)
entered a so-called “lookout” into a government database
called TECS (see the document here), thereby notifying US agents
nationwide that House was wanted for questioning in connection
with the Department of Justice’s investigation into Manning and
WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website.

(US Army PFC Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning,
was sentenced by a US military court last month to 35 years in
prison for releasing hundreds of thousands of military reports to

As a result of the nationwide warning system, which was linked to
the Advance Passenger Information System, HSI was able to receive
an automated notification that House would be taking a trip
outside of the United States and that he was scheduled to return
through Chicago on November 3, 2010.

The ACLU report said the US government was abusing its power to
protect US borders from terrorism in order to interrogate an
individual over political issues.

House’s case provides a perfect example of how the government
uses its border search authority to skirt the protections
afforded by the Fourth Amendment
,” the civil rights watchdog
stated. “The government enjoys wider latitude to search people
and their belongings at the border than it possesses elsewhere,
for the purpose of protecting our borders.

The documents in possession of the ACLU also show that HSI was
acting in cooperation with — and perhaps at the request of —
the Department of Justice, the Department of State, and the
Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, not to protect our
borders but to further a domestic investigation of the WikiLeaks

House’s connection to the Manning case made him an unwitting
target of the investigation, the report said. The US government
then used its access to airline passenger information to
determine when and where House and others would be entering the
United States (see the document here), and “laid in wait to
seize his computer and other electronic devices
,” the report

The documents say the US government is able to use
sophisticated forensics software” to carry out intrusive
searches of personal documents stored on today’s electronic

The report described the US government’s process for searching
electronic devices at the border as “not reassuring
because the details of how it organizes these searches largely
remain a secret.

The watchdog also said that electronic device searches “are
substantially more invasive than traditional border searches,
which is why this particularly intrusive form of government
surveillance should not be conducted without reasonable

Although ICE’s policy states that electronic device searches
should generally be completed within 30 days, it required up to
seven months for the government to complete its search of House’s
electronic information. In the course of the government’s
investigation, the contents of House’s data were “shared with
another government agency, the Army Criminal Investigation
” the ACLU reported.

The ACLU report concluded: “We have no way of knowing how many
of those searches may have been carried out not to search for
contraband — which is the reason ICE has been granted such broad
search powers — but to exploit border search powers to evade the

Copyright: RT