Customs and Border Patrol agents can grab your laptop, BlackBerry, or external hard drive without needing so much as a reason, but a new bill introduced last week to Congress would at least put some limits on how border searches could be done.
"I was deeply concerned to learn about the lack of protections individuals' have when their electronic equipment is randomly seized," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), who introduced the bill. "With the passage of the Border Search Accountability Act of 2008, Americans will be able to travel with more peace of mind knowing that their data will be further protected and that there are stringent accountability measures in place for safeguarding their personal information."
Note what her bill will not do—make searches more difficult.
This isn't what we really want, as it doesn't attempt to set any limits on searches. It does add more transparency to the process, and that is a good thing. It should be supported.
Sanchez's bill would bring more routine to the search process. The bill requires the government to draft additional rules regarding information security, the number of days a device can be retained, receipts that must be issued when devices are taken, ways to report abuses, and it requires the completion of both a privacy impact study and a civil liberties impact study. Travelers would also have the explicit right to watch as the search is conducted.
Sanchez also wants data about the searches, which would have to be turned over to Congress once per quarter. Specifically, she wants to know how many searches are being done, where they take place, and the race and nationality of those being searched.
The Department of Homeland Security actually issued search rules over the summer; while they were the first rules made public on the process, which had started to look quite ad-hoc, they still came in for criticism from groups like the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. ACTE, which doesn't like have executive laptops pinched whenever someone travels overseas, complained in early August that devices could basically be kept indefinitely, the data could be shared with foreign governments, and no data destruction procedures were spelled out.
This is unlikely to make it out of committee in any form before the end of the current congress. The situation is getting much needed attention though.
New bill would tighten rules for DHS border laptop searches