Government uses borders to seize, surveil electronics

Documents reveal border checks provide loopholes through which warrantless searches of travelers' devices abound

Natasha Lennard
September 10, 2013 6:53PM (UTC)

In the wake of public outrage following the nine-hour detention of Glenn Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, at a U.K. airport, where authorities seized his electronic devices, new documents reveal that the U.S. government regularly uses borders to warrantlessly seize and search travelers' laptops, phones and more.

As the New York Times reported Tuesday, the documents, released Monday by the ACLU, were obtained as part of a settlement by David House, a fundraiser for the legal defense of Chelsea Manning, who sued the Department of Homeland Security after his laptop, camera, thumb drive and cellphone were seized, their data examined by the agency for seven months, when he returned from a trip to Mexico in November 2010. Via the Times:


The documents detail what until now has been a largely secretive process that enables the government to create a travel alert for a person, who may not be a suspect in an investigation, then detain that individual at a border crossing and confiscate or copy any electronic devices that person is carrying.

To critics, the documents show how the government can avert Americans’ constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, but the confiscations have largely been allowed by courts as a tool to battle illegal activities like drug smuggling, child pornography and terrorism.

... “It is clear from these documents that the search of David House’s computers had nothing to do with protecting the border or with enforcing immigration laws,” said Catherine Crump, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. House along with the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts. “The government used its broader powers at the border to conduct a search of House’s devices that no court would have approved.”

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

MORE FROM Natasha LennardFOLLOW natashalennardLIKE Natasha Lennard

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •