Border Agents Can Search Laptops “Without Reasonable Suspicion”

A U.S. District Court judge says border agents should be allowed to search travelers’ laptops

tsa security
Adam Lisagor

When are border agents allowed to digitally frisk your laptop? A judge found this week that agents have wide authority to search laptops—even those that belong to journalists. According to U.S. District Judge Edward Korman, “U.S. border agents should have the authority to search laptop computers carried by news photographers and other travelers at international border crossings without reasonable suspicion,” says the Associated Press.

Civil liberties groups argued in a recent lawsuit that searches of travelers' computers violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. The question of laptop searches at border is a long-running issue. In 2008, civil liberties groups attempted, by filing a lawsuit, to find out what the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's policy even was on laptop searches. By 2010, when this current case was first filed, a number of judges had already ruled that agents did not need to have a reasonable suspicion in order to search laptop. (Judge Korman relied on these rulings in making this decision.)

One of the parties on this case was the National Press Photographers Association, which is worried about journalists' ability to protect sources and reporting gathered internationally. This particular worry was highlighted back in August, when David Miranda, the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained at London Heathrow Airport while transporting a copy of documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden to Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. But, according to the judge, concerns about these sorts of searches do not require legal relief, because, he writes, it is "unlikely that a member of the association plaintiffs will have his electronic device searched at the border...This is particularly true with respect to electronic devices of lawyers and journalists, among others, who have been singled out for special protection."

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