Homeland Security seizes electronics and information at border

The DHS defends its right to search and seize travelers' possessions, electronics, and digital information at the border. International travelers may want to leave their personal information at home.

Amy Tiemann
Amy Tiemann, Ph.D., is the author of Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family and creator of MojoMom.com.
Amy Tiemann
2 min read

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Asian Law Caucus are suing the Department of Homeland Security over aggressive searches and seizures of travelers' property and information at U.S. borders.

As reported on BoingBoing:

ALC, a San Francisco-based civil rights organization, received more than 20 complaints from Northern California residents last year who said they were grilled about their families, religious practices, volunteer activities, political beliefs, or associations when returning to the United States from travels abroad. In addition, customs agents examined travelers' books, business cards collected from friends and colleagues, handwritten notes, personal photos, laptop computer files, and cell phone directories, and sometimes made copies of this information. When individuals complained, they were told, "This is the border, and you have no rights."

"When the government searches your books, peers into your computer, and demands to know your political views, it sends the message that free expression and privacy disappear at our nation's doorstep," said Shirin Sinnar, staff attorney at ALC. "The fact that so many people face these searches and questioning every time they return to the United States, not knowing why and unable to clear their names, violates basic notions of fairness and due process."

NPR's Morning Edition broadcast a segment on this story this morning. The Department of Homeland Security is vigorously defending its right to search and seize at the border, and is supported by legal precedent. The segment suggested that travelers' best option was to bring only essential information along on international trips.

I feel like ordinary American citizens are having to become like Jason Bourne, buying the cell phone, making a call and then throwing it away. A more practical suggestion may be that if you are upgrading a laptop, you may want to keep the old one in stripped-down form for travel. But it would be ironic and sad to leave the light, little MacBook Air at home on the desk while you carry a clunkier model with you.

It will be interesting to see if sensible consumer solutions to this problem spring up, and how they can be marketed without sounding "unpatriotic." Let's face it: just because we have nothing to hide doesn't mean we want to have our lives uploaded to government servers. There must be a way to create a "travel" profile on one's laptop or PDA that doesn't unnecessarily expose all of your contact information to surveillance. Some version of backing up the information before you leave, stripping the laptop to bare bones, and then restoring it after you return home.