DHS Given Authority to Seize Electronic Devices Without Suspicion

By Drew Wilson

If you plan on visiting the United States, you may want to leave your laptop or smartphone at home. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is saying that it has the right to seize electronic devices within 100 miles of the US border without any reason for up to 120 days.

It is one of the provisions feared within the now defunct Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) but worse. ACTA, at one point, demanded that authorities could seize anything that can digitally store something for the purposes of enforcing copyright laws. It was a provision so outrageous, that negotiators not only distanced themselves from the provision, but removed it altogether. Now, the DHS has been given the authority to carry out seizures of electronic devices without giving any reason whatsoever – and can do it within 100 miles of the border as well.

The report comes from Wired’s Threat Level which offers a detailed account of why authorities were given such powers in the first place. From the report:

The Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights watchdog has concluded that travelers along the nation’s borders may have their electronics seized and the contents of those devices examined for any reason whatsoever — all in the name of national security.

The DHS, which secures the nation’s border, in 2009 announced that it would conduct a “Civil Liberties Impact Assessment” of its suspicionless search-and-seizure policy pertaining to electronic devices “within 120 days.” More than three years later, the DHS office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties published a two-page executive summary of its findings.


According to legal precedent, the Fourth Amendment — the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures — does not apply along the border. By the way, the government contends the Fourth-Amendment-Free Zone stretches 100 miles inland from the nation’s actual border.

The article goes on to an example where New York traveler Pascal Abidor was stopped at the US/Canada border. Border agents removed his laptop from his baggage and ordered to input his laptop password. After he complied, pictures of Hamas and Hezbollah rallies, among others, were found. He defended himself by saying that he was finishing a doctoral studies revolving around issues affecting those areas, but he was subsequently arrested and spent three days in jail. After 11 days, his laptop was returned after attorneys got involved in the case.

Since the story broke, there’s been a lot of discussion surrounding this new policy. The story hit Slashdot on Friday and some wonder if the 100 miles goes both into the United States and into Canada and Mexico. While some believe it does, it would likely require some form of cooperation with authorities in either country (depending on which country we are talking about). Others wonder if it applied to international airports more inland than the 100 mile threshold.

The story also appeared on Fark which both had their humorous take on the issue as well as sparked discussion on how both political parties in the US may be to blame for why civil rights are this thin these days.

In addition, there was further commentary on BoingBoing where one commenter linked to a map of the US which shows where the fourth amendment ends.

Perhaps the best advice for travelers going into the US is to leave all devices at home before going there. If a cellphone is being brought with you, remove all non-essential data first. While some might suggest encrypting the data, it’s probably best just to have anything removed instead and backed up on another storage device you plan to leave at home. Ideally, you’d have a separate device that is meant purely for traveling so as to remove any possibility that deleted data could be recovered. While it seems paranoid to implement such a personal policy, in light of these revelations, it may now be a standard rule for basic protection of your privacy.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85

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