Congress should review laptop searches
The federal government has adopted a policy allowing warrantless searches on laptops and other devices at border crossings.
A new policy that allows federal agents to routinely search the contents of laptop computers and other electronic devices carried by travelers at border crossings has raised legitimate privacy concerns. Legislation is needed to bring such searches under control without hampering efforts to detect contraband.
Such restrictions will not be simple. While the Constitution protects "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects," the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that the country's "sovereign" and "inherent authority" to protect the borders allows searches there in the absence of any evidence of illegal activity.
In April, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld that doctrine in allowing the search of an American man's laptop computer upon his return from the Philippines. The search at Los Angeles International Airport turned up photographs of child pornography.
Sen. Russ Feingold conducted judiciary subcommittee hearings in June and maintained that the Founding Fathers had no idea that "thousands of Americans would cross the border every day, carrying with them the equivalent of a full library of their most personal information." Businesses now have concerns about trade secrets being revealed, while journalists and lawyers are concerned about exposure of confidential communications.
Travelers expect their belongings to be searched at border crossings through searches of luggage and, since 9/11, X-ray scans of possessions on their person. Either they must widely broaden their expectation of searches or Congress must find a way to protect privacy rights without creating a means for bringing contraband - child pornography or terrorist plans - into the country. That will not be easy.
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