Americans Returning from Overseas Find Their Electronic Devices Searched and Seized

By Matthew Harwood

American business travelers returning from overseas face another hassle at U.S. ports-of-entry: they're having their laptop computers and other electronic devices confiscated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP), reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The big issue is whether the CBP's policy violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable government searches and seizures. CBP officers currently can copy the contents of a device, vet the data stored within, and keep the device for as long as they want until they determine no security threat exists.

This power worries the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, a worldwide organization with members in 82 countries, which fears proprietary business information and protected attorney-client communications could be exposed if a data breach occurs.

Federal courts, the article says, have ruled that Fourth Amendment rights do not apply when a traveler brings something into the country.

Nevertheless, the matter was a topic of discussion before the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution last week. Subcommittee Chairman Senator Russ Feingold (D-WS) said undoubtedly Americans want baggage screened for contraband, but he believes Americans would be against the government snooping into the contents of travelers' electronic devices.

Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, called for a revision in how the CBP confiscated a traveler's personal electronic devices. In today's global and technologically sophisticated world, these devices act as a business person's office and should be protected by the Fourth Amendment.

"In the case of an independent entrepreneur," she said, "a laptop seizure can represent the loss of his or her entire business."

To minimize the impact of such confiscations,

.... Gurley recommended that the committee get a privacy-impact assessment from Homeland Security detailing how many laptops have been seized, why they were taken, and how much time it should take before a device is returned to its owner. She also said there should be published policies for protecting the integrity of data on the devices, and the circumstances that would allow other government agencies to see it.


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