Senate Hears Arguments on Search of Laptops at U.S. Border

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has the authority to search, copy contents or seize a notebook computer or mobile phone when travelers re-enter the U.S. Various groups have sought scrutiny of the practice in order to protect corporate private data and are also concerned about the economic impact. The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings on Wednesday.

Previously, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that official of the CBP do not require reasonable suspicion to search notebook computers, cell phones, and personal storage items. A seizure can include the downloading of the entire storage device.

Both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Association of Corporate Travel Executives are seeking to reverse the decision, according to on Tuesday.

A representative of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives plans to argue that a notebook computer is a mobile office. If that computer were in an office building, the government would need a search warrant to inspect it.

Peter Swire, a law professor, argues: "Opening my suitcase at the border is not the same as opening my laptop and making a permanent record of everything in it."

The CBP, however, is naturally concerned about what travelers are bringing into the U.S. and whether they are in violation of any U.S. law. The CBP issues a statement which said in part, "Laptop computers and other personal electronic devices may be detained for violations of law including child pornography, intellectual property offenses, ties to terrorism, or other violations of law. CBP officers are dedicated to protecting the civil rights of all travelers. It is not CBPis intent to subject legitimate business travelers to undue scrutiny, but to ensure the safety of the American public."

The Senate hearings are being held by the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights chaired by Russell D. Feingold (D., Wisc) and entitled: "Laptop Searches and Other Violations of Privacy Faced by Americans Returning from Overseas Travel"