Homeland Security and Laptop Searches

Image from ARS Technica

Image from ARS Technica. (Click image for article)

This past Thursday, August 27, 2009, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano announced new directives to enhance and clarify oversight for searches of computers and other electronic media at U.S. ports of entry. New guidelines are being designed to reinforce the Department’s efforts to combat crime and terrorism while protecting personal right’s to privacy and civil liberties.

The new directives and guidelines will “enhance transparency, accountability and oversight” of searches at borders, airports, and other ports of entry to the U.S.  Included are new administrative procedures “designed to ensure that officers and agents understand their responsibilities to protect individual private information and that individuals understand their rights.”

Airport laptop search. Image from Center for American Progress.

Airport laptop search. Image from Center for American Progress. (Click image for article)

The DHS further stated that searches are permitted by law and are not restricted to detection of terrorist plans, but are also necessary to uncover possession of child pornography and criminal possession of intellectual property, trademark and copyright infringement.

You can read three reports made available by the government along with this recent announcement. First, the DHS Privacy Office released a Privacy Impact Assessment, which is also available at www.dhs.gov/privacy. This document is designed to improve the public’s understanding of the authorities, policies, and procedures used during searches. It also let’s them know what is being done to protect individuals’ privacy.

(In a related story, the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) will also conduct a “Civil Liberties Impact Assessment” within 120 days.)

Next, additional reports were released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Their guidelines also made mention of searches of iPods and other digital media players, as well as video and digital cameras. Click the links to see the PDFs of the reports.

laptop searchThis is all well and good, but I was a little surprised to learn that out of the 221,000,000 (that’s 221 million) travellers that crossed U.S. borders in the last 10 months that only 1,000 laptops were searched in this period, and that less than 50 of those searches were in depth. That’s about 3 laptops a day being checked out. Typically, the laptop wner is asked to turn on the laptop and demonstrate that it is a working computer, but apparently there are at least 3 PCs a day that require a little bit more scrutiny.

Have you had your camera, iPod, or laptop searched while you were travelling and out of the US? Tell me your story. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d like to hear it.

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