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Laptops and Other Electronics May Be Seized on Entry to US

If you can’t let a day go by without accessing your personal data and files, you’d better think twice about crossing the border back into the U.S. with your computer.  That’s because digital devices such as a laptop computer can be seized at the border without a warrant and sent to a secondary site for forensic inspection.

That ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last week is the second in less than a year that allows the U.S. government to conduct offsite searches of digital devices seized at the border without a warrant, Network World reported.

This could have big implications for business travelers, in particular, who are increasingly mobile and frequently carry laptops and other digital devices containing sensitive personal and company information across our borders. If your data reveals traces of criminality or illegal kinkiness when examined, your troubles will go way beyond temporary data denial.

The Ninth Circuit Court ruling came in a case involving a man whose laptop was seized at the Mexican border when he re-entered the country at Lukeville, Ariz.  Because he was a registered sex offender, custom officials confiscated his laptop computer for inspection.

Though an initial scan of the data revealed nothing incriminating, the agents sent the computer 170 miles away to a digital forensics lab in Tucson because so many of the files were password protected. That search detected images depicting child pornography and the man was subsequently arrested and indicted.

He filed a motion asking that the evidence be suppressed because it was the result of an unreasonable search in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

Several lower courts agreed that the extended search of his laptop was unreasonable because the government didn’t have any reasonable suspicions that incriminating material would be found.

The government appealed, contending that border search doctrine allowed such actions, according to Network World.

In upholding the government’s argument, the Ninth Circuit Court noted that several other courts including the U.S. Supreme Court have recognized that by definition all border searches are reasonable because they occur at the border. The transportation of his computer was justified because the forensic tools needed to adequately search the computer were not available at Lukeville, a small, unincorporated community with a population of 35.

Writing for the majority, Judge Richard Tallman said, “The border search doctrine is not so rigid as to require the United States to equip every entry point — no matter how desolate or infrequently traveled — with inspectors and sophisticated forensics equipment.”

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

Ned Smith

Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and has a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.