Friday, January 15, 2010

Privacy Groups Challenge Government on Laptop Seizures

Before I get to the latest efforts by the ACLU (among others) to challenge the government's incredibly intrusive seizures of peoples laptop computers at, or even near, border checkpoints, I want to direct you to some just published - and deeply disturbing - poll results.

The Quinnipiac survey above all else proves that fear still sells in America. Or, as I said in my critique of "Whole-Body-Imaging" scanners, the immense power of fear on the human mind, the growing influence of the security industrial complex, and the craven desire among politicians to use the threat of terrorism to score political points would be difficult to overcome.

In light of the extraordinary amount of propaganda and fear peddling the public has been subjected to since the attempted terrorist attack on a flight bound for Detroit, these numbers shouldn't be that shocking - but are disappointing nonetheless.

Among the findings were these irrational gems: Americans overwhelmingly now support (84 – 13 percent) greater use of airport body scanners, otherwise known as digital strip searches. Another 86 – 11 percent support new airport security measures even if they mean longer delays in air travel.

Voters also disagree with President Obama’s plan to try suspected terrorists in civilian courts (of course, he only advocates that for SOME...NOT ALL), saying 59 – 34 percent they should be tried in military courts.

They also say (52 – 44 percent) that law enforcement should be able to single out people who look Middle-Eastern for screening and questions, and by 79 – 16 percent, they back the recent decision to subject air travelers from 14 designated countries – most of them nations with large Muslim populations – to extra screening.

But that's not all: 63 percent of voters said that the government’s anti-terror policies lean too far toward protecting civil rights rather than national security (25 percent said they did not). And solid majorities even oppose the closing of our nation's shame: Guantanamo.

And perhaps this final question helps answer the "how the hell could people think this way?" question: More than three out of four respondents say it is very likely (35 percent) or somewhat likely (43 percent) that in the near future there will be a terrorist attack in the United States with a large number of casualties (and of course, strip searches, torture, and profiling DON'T MAKE US SAFER ANYWAY).

I don't want to go into a long diatribe today about what these numbers tell me, but suffice it to say, what is abundantly clear is we have completely lost touch with the core principles espoused in our Constitution.

Now to the issue of laptop seizures in "border patrol zones". As I wrote about here last year, these zones essentially allow government agents to stop and question people anywhere without suspicion within 100 miles of the border. This little known power of the federal government to set up immigration checkpoints far from the nation's border lines came about after 9/11, when Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security the right to use some of its powers deeper within the country.

According to the ACLU in October of 2008, the Department of Homeland Security had set up at least 33 internal checkpoints where they stop people, question them and ask them to prove citizenship. At that time I noted that if we allow these kinds of constitutional violations along our border, how long will it take before we start allowing them in the heartland? And I tend to be of the opinion that anytime we weaken the rights of ANYONE, we weaken them for EVERYONE.

And that brings us to the the supposed right of these border agents, for any reason they deem appropriate, to look into or even seize your laptop computer and all that it contains within.

So, for ANY reason, YOUR laptop and everything you have stored on it, can be taken from you by the government...the same government responsible for Abu Graihb, Rendition, Guantanamo, warrantless wiretapping, military tribunals, the Patriot Act, and the evisceration of Habeus Corpus.

In response to the work of the ACLU, the government came back with a slightly less intrusive policy, requiring the CBP to complete a search of an electronic device within five days and ICE to complete a search within 30 days.

In addition, agents must take additional steps to inform and educate travelers about the searches, and the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will conduct an assessment of the policy's impact on civil rights within 120 days.

Nonetheles, the battle has not waned, and has recently intensified with a pair of civil rights groups - the ACLU and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (with support from EFF) - seeking potential plaintiffs for a lawsuit that challenges the practice of laptop seizures.

Agam Shah of PC World reports:

The groups argue that the practice of suspicionless laptop searches violates fundamental rights of freedom of speech and protection against unreasonable seizures and searches...(and) have the support of Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has argued in court that laptop searches are invasive because devices like laptops contain personal data, which people should be able to keep private. EFF has also argued that some searches have been conducted without s


NACDL believes the policy "erodes fundamental privacy rights generally," the group said on its Web site. It "has a particularly chilling impact on lawyers who travel abroad with legal documents that are subject to the attorney-client or work-product privileges," NACDL wrote.

Last year, a document surfaced on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Web site that authorized U.S. agents to seize and retain laptops indefinitely. Government agents belonging to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is a part of DHS, were also authorized to seize electronic devices including portable media players and cell phones and inspect documents in them.


The ACLU is already challenging DHS in court over the issue. In August last year, the group filed a suit against the DHS after it was denied access to documents to learn about the policy. The EFF and the Asian Law Caucus (ALC) also filed a case last year against the DHS after they were denied access to records on questioning and searches of travelers at U.S. borders.

Click here to read more.

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