Government Explains Border Laptop Search Rules To Appease Critics

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued the new directives in an attempt to clarify rules it issued last month that give the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials the authority to seize electronic devices, examine the information they contain and destroy that information.

The policies -- which do not require a traveler's consent -- allow government officers to examine information stored in digital or analog form, including computers, disks, hard drives and other digital devices such as cameras, iPods and cell phones.

In an attempt to provide more transparency regarding the government's directives, Napolitano defended the practice of searches of laptops at U.S. borders.

In handling sensitive material, the rules state that "Officers encountering business or commercial information in electronic devices shall treat such information as business confidential information and shall protect that information from unauthorized disclosure.

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"Other possibly sensitive information, such as medical records and work-related information carried by journalists, would be handled in accordance with applicable federal law and CBP policy."

The CBP rules can be found here, and ICE rules are listed here.

"The new directives announced today strike the balance between respecting the civil liberties and privacy of all travelers while ensuring DHS can take the lawful actions necessary to secure our borders," Napolitano said.

Napolitano was referring to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU just the day before, seeking more information about the government's policies, the impact on privacy rights of citizens, and whether the policies violate the Constitution.

The government's clarification has not appeased the ACLU. Following the announcement, the ACLU said in a statement that the new privacy standards were a good first step but do not go far enough.

"Members of the public deserve fundamental privacy rights when traveling and the safety of knowing that federal agents cannot rifle through their laptops without some reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group, in a statement. "The ACLU does not oppose border searches, but it does oppose a policy that leaves government officials free to exercise their power arbitrarily. Such a policy not only invades our privacy but can lead to racial and religious profiling."