Department Of Homeland Security Claims American Public No Longer Expects Privacy
Apparently, the right to privacy no longer exist for anyone crossing the border as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has claimed that they have a right to search, without warrant or probable cause, anyone who comes into this country, including citizens.
Amir Khan says he becomes frustrated and humiliated every time he enters the United States and federal agents search his computers. Khan, a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen, says it has happened five times since 2003. He says agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection have even forced him to give them access to password-protected, confidential information from his company and his banking records.
And the scope of what Customs may search for is apparently both unlimited and arbitrary:
The Customs and Border Protection defends the searches, saying the agency does not need to show probable cause to look inside suitcases or laptops.
“We have broad search authority at the borders to determine admissibility and look for anything that may be in violation of criminal law,” says agency spokeswoman Lynn Hollinger.
A DHS spokesman dismissed the complaints of travelers like Mr. Khan with the following statement:
“You forgo your right to privacy when you are seeking admission into the country…This is the kind of scrutiny the American public expects.”
Keep in mind that Mr. Khan is not just a foreign visitor but an American citizen. The government’s reply here is apparently not just restricted to foreign travelers with criminal records or those fitting a terrorist’s profile who come here, the government has openly said that United States citizens traveling abroad have no expectation of privacy if they’re coming back into their own country and anything you’ve got with you is fair game. Got a risque picture from your wife that she sent you while you were on a month-long business trip? Now you get to share it with the guard at Customs if they demand access to your cellphone or computer. Got confidential information for a future business deal? Now the government gets to see it too. Got your bank account or credit card information saved and encrypted on your laptop so you can conduct transactions while traveling? Now that information may get tossed into a government database where it’s vulnerable to identity theft. Assuming, course, that they don’t choose to seize the offending electronic device as well:
Situations for travelers such as Khan are at issue in a lawsuit filed last week by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Asian Law Caucus in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The suit accuses customs agents of “lengthy questioning and intrusive searches” and seeks clarification on the law that allows such searches. The San Francisco, California-based foundation, which works to defend people’s rights in the digital world, says it knows of more than a dozen cases in which electronic devices such as cell phones, BlackBerries, MP3 players and laptops have been searched by customs agents. In some cases, they have been confiscated and never returned.
There are those who would probably feel that such searches are justified. After all, terrorists can hardly be expected to walk up to the Customs officials to announce their presence. The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that the overwhelming majority of people who come to this country are not terrorists, most are law-abiding people who come here for the same reasons any of us might go to their countries. Some are travelers who wish to come and see the United States and spend their money (which they’ll be more than happy to spend elsewhere if it becomes too inconvenient), some are people who come to the United States to conduct business that contributes to economic growth (which they’ll be more than happy to conduct elsewhere if the government gets too intrusive), and some are people who come here because they wish to see what a free society is supposed to look like. Apparently, their first impression of our free society will not include an expectation to privacy.
Update: Commenter KipEsquire has pointed out that DHS’ approach is in line with the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Ramsey (1977), which apparently makes the actions of Customs legal, if not necessarily just or wise.