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Bill seeks to document laptop border searches
Published: 2008-09-17

A U.S. lawmaker introduced a bill last week that would require the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to disclose its procedures for searching computers and devices at the border as well as produce a quarterly report of all laptops, devices and data seized by border agents.

The bill, titled the Border Security Search Accountability Act of 2008, would limit the length of time devices can be held by DHS agents and increase protections for corporate data stored on devices. In addition, individuals would be entitled to a receipt for their belongings, written confirmation if their data is copied and more information about dispute resolution. The DHS would also have to produce a quarterly report of the number of devices seized at different ports of entry.

"This legislation will ensure that when an individual's property is seized at a U.S. point of entry, there is a well-defined procedure in place that will protect their electronic data -- especially information that does not pose a threat to our homeland security," Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-CA, the sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. "My bill also requires the Department of Homeland Security to post information about individuals' rights related to border searches in visible areas near the search points, so that individuals will understand their rights if their property is seized. Finally, my bill establishes a clear-cut process for reporting abuses."

The bill does not limit the ability of customs agents to seize computers and devices at the U.S. borders, but requests that DHS agents "to the greatest extent practicable, conduct all border security searches of electronic devices in the presence of a supervisor and, where appropriate, in the presence of the individuals whose electronic devices are subject to such searches." The bill also requires that all commercial information, such as trade secrets or information subject to attorney-client or doctor-patient privilege, be handled according to applicable laws.

Civil-liberties organizations and business-travel groups have taken issue with the suspension of normal search rules for electronic devices at the U.S. border. In February, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Asian Law Caucus sued the Department of Homeland Security over the invasive searches. In May, a federal district court's ruling upholding the searches led to a broad coalition of groups warning international travelers to leave their electronic devices at home, if possible.

Ironically, the U.S. government -- worried that other countries would steal data from federal workers -- has also advised its employee to remove sensitive data from laptops and cell phones when crossing the border, according to a document leaked earlier this year.

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Posted by: Robert Lemos
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