Laptop seach and seize will continue at US borders

Cliff Saran

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the US has amended its policy to seize any electronic device brought into the country, in a bid to counter criticisms that the policy infringes civil liberties.

The DHS conducts border searches of computers and other electronic media on a percentage of international travellers seeking to enter the US. Most times, the traveller is asked to turn on a device to ensure it is what it appears to be. But out of the 1,000 laptop searches between October 2008 and August 2009, 46 searches were in-depth.

Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the new directives to clarify searches of computers and other electronic media at US ports of entry. “The new directives announced today strike the balance between respecting the civil liberties and privacy of all travellers while ensuring DHS can take the lawful actions necessary to secure our borders,” she said.

The changes do not affect the department’s ability to conduct searches of laptops.

In a blog posting on the previous DHS policy, Eugene Schultz, chief technology officer at consultancy Emagined Security, said, “Computers almost always contain a great deal of personal, sensitive information in the form of e-mail messages, photographs, and more- information that people deem private and that would be embarrassing to them if it were to be viewed by someone else. This information should thus not be available to DHS border agents at their whim.

“Additionally, having a computer system seized is very disruptive to individuals who use the system to get their work done. Furthermore, people should not have to surrender the password to a system they own unless there is a compelling rationale to require the person to do so.”