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No Need to Cyberspy; Government Officials Can Simply Confiscate Your Laptop

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Posted on Jan 2, 2014
utnapistim (CC BY-NC 2.0)

With all the leaks revealed thanks to whistle-blower Edward Snowden, we’re finally all pretty aware that most of our digital data is impossible to keep private. For this eye-opening information that’s opened up an important conversation about Internet privacy, the whole world is without a doubt indebted to Snowden.

But did you know, even without fancy software, border officials can seize your computer whenever they feel like it?

And thanks to Judge Edward R. Korman, who recently threw out a case pertaining to this exact issue, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers will continue to be able to search through your private data to their hearts’ content. The Daily Dot reports:

On Tuesday, a federal judge dismissed a 2010 case challenging the U.S. government’s broad authority to search and seize electronic devices at international borders without a warrant. It’s a decision that has stymied the cause of the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates who have resisted the erosion of Fourth Amendment rights at airports and border crossings.

The case was brought by Pascal Abidor, a dual U.S.-French citizen who was detained in May 2010 while returning aboard an Amtrak train to the United States from school in Canada.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers searched Abidor’s laptop computer after discovering that he was an Islamic Studies student who had recently lived in Jordan and traveled to Lebanon. Upon discovering images of Hamas and Hezbollah on Abidor’s laptop (part of a research project), CBP officers further searched his computer, cellphone, and person. They ultimately wound up putting Abdor in a holding cell for three hours.

Abidor was joined by the ACLU, along with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Press Photographers Association who filed as co-plaintiffs, challenging the extraordinary search authority granted to CBP officials.

In throwing out the case, Judge Edward R. Korman argued that CBP officers have a lower threshold to meet when examining and confiscating electronic devices at border zones because of a long-standing exception to certain Fourth Amendment protections for persons entering the United States. In his ruling, Korman cited the “border search doctrine” (also known as the border search exception), which relaxes the definition of “unreasonable” when it comes to unwarranted searches and seizures.

Whether a search or seizure is unreasonable ‘depends upon all of the circumstances surrounding the search and seizure and the nature of the search or seizure itself. The permissibility of a particular law enforcement practice is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate government interests.’

Korman goes on to say that the government’s interest in keeping “unwanted persons and effects” from entering the country is at its acme at international borders, and thus searches taking place in these zones are “not subject to any requirement of reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or warrant[.]”

The federal judge added that it would be “naive” to think that the same violations would not occur at other countries’ borders. It seems we’ve all been guilty of naiveté for expecting our government to keep our best interests at heart rather than continuously infringing upon our rights. Why even bother with a constitution at this point?

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

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