Federal security workers are now free to snoop through more than just your undergarments and luggage at the airport. Thanks to a recent series of federal court decisions, the digital belongings of international fliers are now open for inspection. This includes reading the saved e-mails on your laptop, scanning the address book on your iPhone or BlackBerry and closely scrutinizing your digital vacation snapshots.
Unlike the more common confiscations of dangerous Evian bottles and fingernail clippers, these searches are not being done in the name of safety. The digital seizures instead are part of a disturbing trend of federal agencies using legal gimmicks to sidestep Fourth Amendment constitutional protections. This became clear in an April 8 court ruling that found admissible the evidence obtained by officials who had peeped at a passenger’s laptop files at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.
According to court documents, FBI agents had identified an individual suspected of downloading child pornography on an Internet chat room. The G-men, however, did not want to take their evidence before a judge to obtain a search warrant, as the Constitution requires. Instead, they flagged the suspect’s passport and asked officials at the Department of Homeland Security to seize and search his computer at the airport - without a warrant. Three incriminating images were found during the examination, but this case is not about whether a particular person is a scumbag. It’s about abusing a principle that applies to all Americans.
U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller found in this case that neither probable cause, justification nor warrant were required to seize and examine the suspect’s laptop. Judge Miller, in accord with a 9th Circuit appellate ruling handed down two years ago, explained that “the court finds that reviewing the files of a computer does not rise to the level of invasion of the privacy and dignity of the individual to make the search non-routine.”
In other words, simply because a U.S. citizen is returning from a foreign country by airplane, the government thinks it is a “routine” matter to download sensitive business documents, personal correspondence and any other information that might be saved on a laptop or cell phone, regardless of whether there is any reason to suspect the traveler of a crime.
The danger of this chain of reasoning is magnified by the courts’ expansive definition of “border,” which now includes checkpoints operating up to 100 miles from Canada or Mexico. Those traveling on the highway between Los Angeles and Phoenix, for example, may find themselves stopped by Department of Homeland Security officers who, literally, ask travelers to show their papers. Drug dogs also can be brought in to search vehicles without probable cause.
The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of Americans to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects” from unreasonable and unwarranted government intrusion. It is obvious that this right is meant to apply equally to papers that happen to be stored in digital form on a personal hard drive. Such protections do not disappear merely because one happens to be at a real - or imaginary - border.
Because the courts have been derelict in their duty to uphold this fundamental right, it is up to Congress to prohibit the thinly veiled attempts to create Constitution-free zones where Americans find their privacy invaded.