Mohamed Shommo, an engineer for Cisco Systems Inc, travels overseas several times a year for work, so he is accustomed to opening his bags for border inspections upon returning to the US. But in recent years, these inspections have gone much deeper than his luggage.
Border agents have scrutinized family pictures on Shommo’s digital camera, examined Koranic verses and other audio files on his iPod and even looked up Google keyword searches he had typed into his company laptop.
“They literally searched everywhere and every device they could,” said Shommo, who now minimizes what he takes on international trips and deletes pictures from his camera before returning to the US.
“I don’t think anyone has a right to look at my private belongings without my permission. You never know how they will interpret what they find,” he said.
Given all the personal details that people store on digital devices, border searches of laptops and other gadgets can give law enforcement officials far more revealing pictures of travelers than suitcase inspections might yield. That has set off alarms among civil liberties groups and travelers’ advocates — and now among some members of Congress, who hope to impose restrictions on the practice next year.
They fear the government has crossed a sacred line by rummaging through electronic contact lists and confidential e-mail messages, trade secrets and proprietary business files, financial and medical records and other deeply private information.
These searches, opponents say, threaten Fourth Amendment safeguards against unreasonable search and seizure and could chill free expression and other activities protected by the First Amendment. What’s more, they warn, such searches raise concerns about ethnic and religious profiling since the targets are often Muslims, including US citizens and permanent residents.
“I feel like I don’t have any privacy,” said Shommo, a native of Sudan who has been in the US for more than a decade and plans to apply for citizenship next year. “I don’t feel treated equally to everybody else. I feel discriminated against.”
Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, asserts that it has constitutional authority to conduct routine searches at the border — without suspicion of wrongdoing — to prevent dangerous people and property from entering the country.
This authority, the government maintains, applies not only to suitcases and bags, but also to books, documents and other printed materials — as well as to electronic devices.
Such searches, the government notes, have uncovered everything from martyrdom videos and other violent jihadist materials to child pornography and stolen intellectual property.
While Homeland Security points out that these procedures predate the attacks of Sept. 11, civil liberties groups have seen an uptick in complaints about border searches of electronic devices in the past two years, according to Shirin Sinnar, staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus. In some cases, travelers suspected border agents were copying their files after taking their laptops and cellphones away for anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks or longer.
Such inspections appear to amount to “a fishing expedition” by border agents, said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates.