Homeland Security Approves Seizure of Cell Phones and Laptops within 100 Miles of Border; Report Remains Secret

Monday, February 11, 2013
(graphic: ACLU)


Americans have no Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures if they happen to be within 100 miles of the border, according to the “Executive Summary” of a still-secret report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As the ACLU-created map above shows, nearly 2/3 of Americans (197 million people)—including the entire populations of Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, DC, and Michigan—live in this “Constitution free” zone, as do the residents of the nation’s five most populous cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia.


The secret report is DHS’s response (two years late) to critics of its policy, in place since at least 2008, of allowing border control agents, without a warrant or even a suspicion of wrongdoing, to search any travelers’ electronic devices (laptops, cell phones, tablets, cameras, etc.) and seize data they find. According to a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) filed three years ago by the ACLU, DHS subjected more than 6,500 travelers—nearly half of them U.S. citizens—to searches under this policy between October 2008 and June 2010.


The Executive Summary of the secret report, which DHS is allowing the public to see, sets forth its conclusions without even summarizing the reasoning underlying them. Thus it asserts 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,” but is silent on how DHS defines “civil rights/civil liberties benefits” or how it balances these against its institutional needs.


The ACLU, which has already filed an FOIA request demanding the full report, released a statement arguing that “allowing government agents to search through all of a traveler’s data without reasonable suspicion is completely incompatible with our fundamental rights: our Fourth Amendment right to privacy—and more specifically the right to be free from unreasonable searches—is implicated when the government can rummage through our computers and cell phones for no reason other than that we happen to have traveled abroad. Suspicionless searches also open the door to profiling based on perceived or actual race, ethnicity, or religion. And our First Amendment rights to free speech and free association are inhibited when agents at the border can target us for searches based on our exercise of those rights.”

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

DHS Watchdog OKs ‘Suspicionless’ Seizure of Electronic Devices Along Border (by David Kravets, Wired)

ACLU Files FOIA Request for Unreleased DHS Privacy Report on Laptop Searches at the Border (by Katie Haas, ACLU Human Rights Program)

Civil Rights/Civil Liberties Impact Assessment: Border Searches of Electronic Devices, Executive Summary (by Tamara Kessler, Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, U.S. Department of Homeland Security) (pdf)

Homeland Security to begin Scanning Prepaid Payment Cards of Arriving Travelers (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

See all 69 comments


james smith 9 years ago
This government keeps on all their doing is waging a war which is fine by me and you wonder why our country is hated by all even the ones living in it try and take anything of mine without reason you might get it but I bet I take down more of you before you kill me
Thomas Jefferson 10 years ago
The border has been changed to 100 miles. That's what there is to see here, Bob! I'm fine with checking folks coming into our country, but a 100 mile border will encompass 2\3 of our population, that will be subject to these searches and seizures, in clear violation of our 4th amendment to the US constitution.
f 11 years ago
"Border" guards question, seize property, and make arrests all the time in Rochester, New York. Rochester has no border - it's simply within 100 miles of the border. Domestic travelers on Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses are targeted for questioning. The universities in Rochester have issued warning papers to their international students on this issue. For example, any budding computer scientist from abroad studying at Rochester Institute of Technology can be arrested and subject to lengthy interrogations simply for failing to produce their paperwork on demand at a Rochester train or bus station, regardless of their travel intentions or destination (including domestic trips to neighboring cities).
old_man 11 years ago
@BorderBob: There is plenty to see here. Border checks occur as one is attempting to enter the country. Once that person is accepted into the country, no more "border searches" can occur by definition. No citizens do not have the same civil liberties as citizens. Any citizen who was shaken down after entrance into the country had civil liberties infringed.
BorderBob 11 years ago
“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,” Border Search is a legal exception to the 4th Amendment warrant requirement. It has been around since the late 1700's. It is the same thing as having your bags searched at airports or your car at the land border. Nothing to see here.
JW M 11 years ago
tommy maroti, "Keep your powder dry!"? Have you tried to buy powder lately, unless of course you are referring to talcum powder?
James 11 years ago
What do you expect when you have idiots like THIS in congress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAFjq76Uz0k
Joker 11 years ago
http://florida.academia.edu/MattBewig seems to be a pretty well written law student... i'd take his word for it when it comes to legislative measures of this nature..
Bob 11 years ago
The "Secret" report... If some stranger walked up to you on the street and started telling you this stuff, you'd probably think the person was a nut. But read it on a random website or facebook post created by someone you don't even know and some of you take it as gospel. Take 30 seconds and google these types of stories and FB posts before you start loading you guns and going nuts.I realize some people would rather believe the BS - facts tend to get in the way of some people's personal feelings. But do any of you know who the hell "allgov.com" is or who operates it? Start thinking for yourselves instead of letting random websites, faceook posts created by people you don't know, and cable news channels do all of your thinking for you.
Florida 11 years ago
it is obamas fault if he is still letting it happen

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