If you value your privacy, you may want to consider leaving your laptop behind the next time you go on vacation. In a further erosion of our constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the Washington Post reported that a federal judge in New York recently made a ruling that legitimizes the Department of Homeland Security’s policy of allowing federal agents to search our laptops and other electronic devices when we cross a U.S. border. No reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing is required. The contents of laptops and other devices can even be copied. This means that any time you cross a border—whether by car, train, plane, whatever—officers may scour the contents of your personal electronics on a whim.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit dismissed last month by U.S. District Judge Edward Korman were a college student and a group of criminal defense lawyers and press photographers. The college student was an Islamic studies major with dual French-American citizenship who brought his laptop on an Amtrak train from Montreal to New York. Judge Korman stated that the student could prove no injury from the confiscation of his laptop, which was returned 11 days after it was seized, and that the officers had reasonable suspicion in that case anyway. Why? We don’t know, but the Post reported that the student had images of rallies by Hamas and Hezbollah on his computer.
In direct contravention of the Fourth Amendment, Judge Korman ruled that searches at borders without probable cause and without a warrant are still reasonable. He attempted to justify his ruling by stating that there is a very small chance that any one individual’s laptop will be searched. Two other federal appeals courts have held that searches of electronic devices are “routine border searches.” But the fact that they are routine doesn’t mean they should be legal. As the plaintiffs’ attorney said, this type of search is “part of a broader pattern of aggressive government surveillance that collects information on too many innocent people.”