If a U.S. Border Patrol agent wants to look at—and inside—your laptop when you cross the U.S. border—he doesn’t need a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to perform the search, a U.S. court has held.
In response, dozens of organizations, including the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, have sent an open letter to four congressional committees, asking them to consider legislation that will “protect all Americans against suspicionless digital border inspections.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit handed down the laptop ruling April 21. The case involved a man named Michael Arnold, who was arrested in 2005 on charges of transporting child pornography on his laptop. The unanimous three-judge decision reverses a lower court finding that customs agents needed some reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred in order to search a traveler’s laptop.
ACTE filed a friend of the court brief in the case, arguing that a laptop was intellectual property and, therefore, different from ordinary luggage. “The court has disagreed, and this decision will have significant impact on business travelers who have no idea their data is subject to search and seizure,” said ACTE Global Executive Director Susan Gurley in a statement responding to the court’s decision.
ACTE has been following the laptop seizure issue for several years. After the court decision, the association issued a warning to its members, and all business travelers, to limit proprietary information on laptop computers when crossing U.S. borders and to eliminate any personal data, including photographs, finances, and e-mail that they do not want examined by Border Patrol authorities.
While Gurley called for Congress to act on the laptop seizure issue, she recognizes the challenges. “In a time of heightened international security, it will take a brave Congress to rule that parties may not be subject to suspicionless searches,” said Gurley. She said she expects the issue to come up again, perhaps “when a more compelling case winds its way to the Supreme Court.”