Conservatives love to hate the ACLU; but whether you’re conservative, liberal, libertarian, or “none of the above,” if you want to protect the privacy of your laptop computer and your Blackberry or i-phone against unlimited and unwarranted government snooping, you ought to write the ACLU a thank you note, if not a check.
The ACLU last week teamed up with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) in filing a lawsuit against the federal government, to stop the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its component agencies (Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement) from demanding that people (including United States citizens) entering the U.S., turn over their laptops and other electronic devices so that agents can peruse the devices and gather whatever information they wish. The government asserts that since the searches are taking place at border crossings and other ports of entry, it has an absolute right to engage in such warrantless and intrusive searches simply because they take place at the border.
While common sense and the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees that people are free from unwarranted and unreasonable government searches and seizures are turned on their head by the government’s rationale, federal courts generally have permitted the feds to do so.
The case of a doctoral student attending Canada’s McGill University’s Islamic Studies program, however, may change all that. This is the case that caught the eye of both the ACLU and the NACDL. The student, Pascal Abidor, was travelling on a train from Montreal to New York last May, when his laptop was taken from him by Customs and Border Patrol agents. It was returned to him 11 days later, and he discovered everything in the unit’s files and on the external hard drive had been examined. The apparent reason why Abidor was subject to such abuse was simply because his passport contained entry stamps for various Middle Eastern countries — not surprising for a student majoring in Islamic Studies, but enought to cause the border agents to sharply question him; handcuff and detain him for several hours; and forcibly seize his laptop and download everything in it. He was not charged with or suspected of any crimes.
Abidor’s case is similar to thousands of others that occur each year as federal border and customs agents exercsie the free rein they currently enjoy to seize computers and other electronic devices (including cell phones and digital cameras) based on nothing more than where someone might have travelled, or what they might be studying. For the sake of every person who travels outside the country and who values their personal privacy — and on behalf of everyone who believes the Bill of Rights has meaning – let’s hope this latest lawsuit prevails and results in at least some check on this form of government abuse.