The Obama administration on Thursday put new restrictions on searches of laptops at U.S. borders to address concerns that federal agents have been rummaging through travelers’ personal information.
The long-criticized practice of searching travelers’ electronic devices will continue, but a supervisor now would need to approve holding a device for more than five days.
Given all the personal details that people store on digital devices, border searches of laptops and other gadgets can give law enforcement officials far more revealing pictures of travelers than suitcase inspections might yield. That has set off alarms among civil liberties groups and travelers’ advocates who say the government has crossed a line by examing electronic contact lists and confidential e-mail messages, trade secrets and proprietary business files, financial and medical records and other deeply private information.
Marcia Hofmann, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a ditigal civil rights advocacy group, said in an interview the new rules are an improvement. But they don’t go far enough, she said.
The searches, which predate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,
have uncovered everything from martyrdom videos and other violent
jihadist materials to child pornography and stolen intellectual
property, according to the government.
One successful search the
government cites from recent years: In 2006, a man arriving from the
Netherlands at the Minneapolis airport had digital pictures of
high-level al-Qaida officials, video clips of improvised explosive
devices being detonated and of the man reading his will. The man was
convicted of visa fraud and removed from the country.