Court limits government laptop snooping

As noted previously in this Blog, the Obama Administration has continued the policy of the previous administration and claimed the right to seize the laptop computers and other electronic devices of any person entering the country.  The feds also assert the right to retain the devices indefinitely to search for whatever evidence the government wishes.  This unbridled power to search personal files without warrant applies to foreigners as well as American citizens returning from travels abroad.

Now, at long last, a federal judge in California has placed at least some limits on the government’s ability to seize laptops, hold them indefinitely, and peruse them for evidence of criminality whenever the government’s agents feel the desire.  In the California case, U.S. citizen Andrew Hanson was returning from a trip to South Korea in January 2009.  Customs agents seized his laptop, digital camera, and other property because they suspected Hanson’s equipment contained evidence of child pornography.  They searched the laptop on at least two occasions in January and February 2009, and again five months later in June.  It was this latter search, conducted many months after Hanson’s entry into the country, that US District Court Judge Jeffrey White found to be unreasonable and as to which he prohibited the government from using any evidence gathered as a result.

While the government still may seize and search laptop computers and other devices and papers at ports of entry without warrants, if it decides to hold the equipment and search it at times distant from the time of entry, at least in the Northern District of California individual citizens now enjoy some relief from excessive and instrusive government snooping.

11 comments Add your comment


June 11th, 2010
7:31 am

Meeestur Bob…thank you for enlightening the peoples on this issue. You must be having little to write about these days.


June 11th, 2010
9:11 am

Bob, unlike your counterpart in DC, thank you for writing a piece all by yourself without having to resort to cut and paste like Cynthia Tucker.

Ima Nidiot

June 11th, 2010
9:55 am

While obviously we want to catch and punish criminals, it’s unbelievable that there is a policy allowing search of electronic devices without probable cause.

The interesting legal issue is when the owner encrypts the data…if you have encrypted your data using technology that law enforcement cannot feasibly circumvent, then providing the encryption keys or password is self incrimination, no?


Last week a federal court in Vermont decided that a criminal defendant’s compelled act of producing unencrypted contents of an encrypted laptop is NOT protected by the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against compelled self-incrimination. (United States v. Boucher)

So I guess if I encrypt the data, this would be considered probable cause that a crime has occurred. Thus by using encryption I could be charged with conspiracy. Ugh……

The best strategy may be to physically destroy all your electronic devices prior to entering the US….

Speaking of laptop data: If this guy Van Sloot really has information linking him to the Holloway murder on his laptop and the woman he murdered saw this information, two comments:

1) if you have direct evidence of a crime, is it particularly wise to keep it on a non-password-protected laptop?

2) Did the Aruba police ever search this laptop?

Bob Barr doesn't participate

June 11th, 2010
6:28 pm

Mr Barr is correct. A laptop, camera or phone is personal, private property. Government has no business whatsoever snooping through it unless there is evidence or probable cause for a crime.

Alvin Greene for Senate in SC

June 11th, 2010
6:30 pm

“I have no comment on that.”

Just Curious

June 12th, 2010
9:39 am

So they found evidence of child pornography during the last search, but can’t use it? I’m all for protecting privacy, but I’ll make an exception for creeps who indulge in this disgusting practice.

oilly olley

June 12th, 2010
10:00 am

This column has appeared before. I have a question. Recently a couple in Batavia,N.Y. were arrested and charged with a host of vioations for having sex on a picnic table in a local park. Among the charges was adultery. The woman appeared in court and pleaded not guilty to adultery. She claimed although leagally married, her husband had a “gender reassignment” so she was no longer married because her husband was not the man she married. Now, the arresting officer, could have violated the unreasoanable search and seizure or the invasion of privacy amendment if he had proceeded further with his investiagation,so how will this all play out in court?


June 12th, 2010
10:58 am


Al Dente

June 12th, 2010
6:22 pm

Airport screens should include Laptops and other high tech items that could be destructive. Recently I flew into Paris, where the French have a particular genius with food, customs officials seized my SlapChop vegetable chopper, because I’m a menace with kitchen utensils in the preparation of meals. If I had gotten through the culinary security screens, there’s no telling what havoc I would have wreaked on the French Palette. In Rome, they seized my colander for the same reason: pasta deserves better.

Al Dente!


June 12th, 2010
11:16 pm

With the proliferation of cloud-based services – Google docs, drop box, MobileMe iDisk and the others, will this issue eventually become moot? I mean, if you travel abroad you can “blank” your laptop, keeping all the personal stuff on the cloud. You can search my netbook all you like, but you have to know I also have a DropBox account before you can demand my password, right?


June 13th, 2010
9:21 am

Marrieatta is greater than Atlanta.