EFF sues DHS over electronics searches

The Asian Law Caucus and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed a joint lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over access to public records on the questioning and searches of travelers at U.S. borders.
Filed under the Freedom of Information Act, the suit responds to growing complaints by U.S. citizens and immigrants of excessive or repeated screenings by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

ALC, a San Francisco-based civil rights organization, received more than 20 complaints from Northern California residents last year who said they were grilled about their families, religious practices, volunteer activities, political beliefs, or associations when returning to the United States from travels abroad. In addition, customs agents examined travelers' books, business cards collected from friends and colleagues, handwritten notes, personal photos, laptop computer files, and cell phone directories, and sometimes made copies of this information. When individuals complained, they were told, "This is the border, and you have no rights."

"When the government searches your books, peers into your computer, and demands to know your political views, it sends the message that free expression and privacy disappear at our nation's doorstep," said Shirin Sinnar, staff attorney at ALC. "The fact that so many people face these searches and questioning every time they return to the United States, not knowing why and unable to clear their names, violates basic notions of fairness and due process."

ALC and EFF asked DHS to disclose its policies on questioning travelers on First Amendment-protected activities, photocopying individuals' personal papers, and searching laptop computers and other electronic devices. The agency failed to meet the 20-day time limit that Congress has set for responding to public information requests, prompting the lawsuit.

Link to EFF.org announcement, here's a copy of the complaint (PDF).

Previously on Boing Boing:
* US Customs TSA confiscating laptops
* TSA apologizes to "blogesphere" for arbitrary gadget screenings
* Arbitrary TSA requirement: all electronics out of your bag (cables, too)


  1. Sounds like the EFF has picked a losing battle here. There’s about five thousand years’ worth of legal precedent that says the government can do pretty much anything they want at a border crossing.

  2. “This is the border, and you have no rights.”

    So a person who is an American citizen has no rights as such since a border is not in the USA? “The Democratic People’s Republic of TSA”?

    Any person not an American citizen would truly have to be totally out of their mind to risk entering the USA.

    Who owns the borders?

  3. How about a little script that starts autogenerating browser history with semi-randomly generated urls. “So you’ve visited 10 websites today… no wait, 100… um 1,000? What? 10,000 websites?”

  4. I am not an American Citizen, but I live within a short bus ride of the border. If I ever enter the US again, Im popping my HD out of my laptop, using a ubuntu live CD, using GMail to hold my everyday files, and those things which are too sensitive to have on the net but I need with me are on a highly encrypted USB flash drive stuck where the sun don’t shine. That said I would have to clear my cellphone contacts entirely (to be resynched when I get to my destination) have zero stuff on my iPod (can you say BORING bus ride?).

    They can turn on my computer, boot my ubuntu livecd, & copy whatever they wish because there won’t be anything there. Its a pain in the butt (see flash drive above) but if I had say sensitive account information for clients I would consider that not within the purview of the border police, because if they copied said information wouldn’t I be held liable for what they did with it, or if they leaked that information accidentallyonpurpose?

    There should be no legal way they could get at my files online, thats not ON the computer crossing the border. They would see only a fresh install see no net history, no logs beyond the livecd booting logs. I could then when at my destination resynch everything and hopefully be okay legally.

    Lets hope the EFF gets them to fix this because I really don’t want to have to fish for the flash drive in the bowl.

  5. Or every time you travel just shove an arbitrarily large random chunk of archive.org’s 18 billion sites into your browser history.

  6. Canada/US border-crossings have always (ok, in my lifetime) been potentially ‘intrusive’. Long before computers, trunks had to be opened (on request) to allow searches for contraband (or stuff that required paying duty). No warrant required.

    Customs people (my observations, I’ve known a couple) in the past tended to use their experience and intuition to decide how much scrutiny was called for. No doubt they always had an (invisible) set of guidelines. Generally, the less stuff you brought and the shorter your stay, the less trouble getting through. But then, in the past they didn’t have to worry much about people transporting trunkloads of chemicals.

    Bravo to EFF for seeking some transparency in these practices which can lead to (apparent) excesses at the border. I don’t doubt that border-folk hear many scary stories that are unlikely to unfold at their outposts. The propagation of FUD isn’t limited to “civilians”.

  7. #5,get a MP3 player with an FM tuner.

    As for security of data transmitted after crossing the border; the official NSA story about why they “don’t tap fiber” ( they can) is the data “sprays you in face like a firehose”. However, just saw something about a proposed mainframe that “could support the whole web”. Progress.

    Which brings us back to why the security in the first place. If I were planning a major attack, every aspect would be face to face, verbal and only with people known. Unstoppable.

  8. I think it’s about time that these issues start to receive court attention.
    I am not an american citizen but I’m scared shitless whenever I have to enter the US (something I try to avoid as much as possible).

    It’s time for serious insight into those procedures and the examination and strengthening of the rights for both US citizens and visitors at borders.

  9. #7: “Customs people (my observations, I’ve known a couple) in the past tended to use their experience and intuition to decide how much scrutiny was called for.”

    I’ve driven across the US-Canada border crossing hundreds of times in my life and the *only* time I’ve been asked to pull my car over for a thoroughgoing search, an interview, etc was when there were two black people (science fiction writers Nalo Hopkinson and her husband, David) in the car with me.

    I was never more ashamed to be Canadian than that day.

  10. Every time I see one of these stories it further convinces me my current policy of avoiding the USA is correct. Which is a shame as I have happy memories of road trip holidays there 15 years ago and would actually love to re-visit. You American citizens need to claim your country back…

  11. I think the real butt of the issue is that the People at the border have been given more power and a mandate. I’ve noticed that when you give most people the power to lord over others, they do. It happens everywhere. Typical primate behavior.

  12. If you’re an American, register as a Republican, and VOTE for Democrats. Maybe they won’t give you a hard time if you’re a registered Republican (and how do they know who you actually voted for?).

    Of course this doesn’t help foreigners coming into the US.

    I wonder what happens if the TSA find something they don’t like– if it’s American citizens, what will they do, refuse them entry into their own country? More likely imprison them, but under what charge? “Suspicion of being suspicious”?

  13. too,too late:

    “The bill is called the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 1955/S. 1959). The language in this bill is so maddeningly vague it could mean anything. It could therefore be tailored to attack any group opposing national and international policies that have the backing of the corporatist-governmental power system.”

  14. Several comments: I’ve had my share of problems with US Customs and Immigration agents but I do have to say that the most shit I have ever taken by anyone at any border was entering Canada last year where I was treated like dirt by the most rude person I have ever encountered in law enforcement. I was traveling to Canada at the invitation of the government to speak without honorarium at an academic conference and they wanted to try to get me to say I was there on business without proper documentation. I am convinced that it was because I am a US citizen. Our Canadian friends who posted to the blog should not feel that they are the only ones mistreated at the border.

    With that said, there is, I admit, a terrorism problem. As a lifelong law enforcement officer, then security manager, then security consultant, I have been learning about terrorism since 1976 when I first attended a briefing on the subject. But that threat is not what we have been led to believe it is.

    I am convinced that the Bush administration and their neo-conservative backers created a problem as an excuse to take greater political control. The Patriot Act is used to fight abortion, pornography, and drugs and to systematically take away rights of citizens. It has been said that a revolution occurs over a long period of time and you don’t know you had one until its over. And so it is. We are in a revolution. The only mistake Bush has made is not pulling a coup instead.

    Our country is going to hell in a hand basket at a fast rate of speed and if we don’t do something to stop them it will soon be too late. Hanging these criminals will do nothing as they are just the front men for the neocons behind the scenes.

    We need to stop the conservative propaganda machine–Limbaugh, Fox News, etc. We need to end the absurd requirement for a 60% vote in the Senate to cut off debate and go back to the majority rules principle. We need to stop the practice of Presidential Signing Statements which Bush has used to over rule the will of Congress. We need to have campaign funding reform to take power from special interests, big business, big religion, and those with money. We need to limit lobbyist contact with elected officials and make it a serious crime with serious sentences for violating the public trust. We need to restore faith in honest elections by getting rid of voting machines unless they can truly be certified as secure and using common sense over issues like hanging chads. We need to hold a national referendum once and for all on all of the major issues of our time that are used as a rallying point by these criminals. The understanding must be that these issues will not be subject to debate for 25 years and will not be negated by the courts or Presidential Signing Statements. The issues are abortion, campaign reform, gay marriage, gay civil unions, the right to bear arms and if yes, what arms. And we need a referendum on specific issues dealing with the separation of church and state such as non-denominational prayer in schools and religions displays for any religion who requests it in the town square. And we need to vote on whether schools can allow religions groups to meet after school on school property as long as the aethiest group can also meet and the Muslim group can also meet. And we need a referendum on whether we are going to teach science in school or religion with regard to evolution. Since these issues will be resolved for 25 years before reconsideration, regardless of how they are resolved they must include some compromise. People, for example, might be allowed to own a gun in their home but not a nuclear tipped bullet or a cannon.

    We need to trash the Patriot Act as soon as possible.

    Schools need to teach and TV networks need to offer shows on critical thinking. 33% of Fox news viewers believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. Ignorance is rampant. Fox should be held accountable for their lies and the only way to do this is to go back to the equal time provision we used to have. If you swift boat someone you better be able to prove what you say or you’ll go to jail.

    Every government agency in a regulatory role needs to be restructured. We need one person in charge but two distinct independent sections with equal power whose leader cannot be fired until his term expires giving him independence. One branch represents the regulated industries like drug manufacturers and the other represents the consumer. Our agencies currently represent “The industry” at the expense of the consumer.

    Regulations grew from a need for regulations. One major mistake we made is ending regulation of big business. They can’t be trusted. Big corporations are not loyal to consumers or to their country and most see themselves as responsible only to stockholders where ever they are in the world. Years ago we handed a gift to the US car manufacturers by limiting imports. What did the US companies do? they raised their prices to make even more profit without having to hire more union employees needed to sell more cars at a competitive price. they benefited, workers didn’t. Did you ever wonder why when the Fed lowers the interest rate they charge the banks to borrow money, why the lower rates are not passed on dollar for dollar to consumers? We can’t trust China to make safe dog food but we allow drug companies to buy ingredients from the Chinese. We give them a no bid contract and they still cheat and over bill. Corporations are crooks and they have to be regulated.

    We need to not only control the movement of jobs off shore but to punish it in the marketplace. We are a big country and our economy can survive as it did for two centuries on sales from within our borders. It is greed that has motivated us to develop a world economy. It is a myth that we need it. We need to regulate the ratio between what the highest paid employee of a company and the lowest paid employee make. Executive salaries are obscene. My stock values are down but the executives still make tens of millions in pay as a reward.

    We need guest workers but we need to control their numbers and admit them in an orderly manner. why am I paying to build a fence at the Mexican border when all we have to do is deny illegals benefits except for educations for kids of guest workers. No welfare, no social security, no citizenship for children born here. Only those who want to come here ot work will then come. And if they prosper and become citizens, so be it. If that doesn’t work, jail the person who hires them. If the hiring company is a corporation and hiring is done by an employee in the field, jail the President for not knowing his managers are hiring illegals. Three years for the person who did the actual hiring and 90 days in the slammer for the wealthy Harvard trained corporate President will surely solve the problem.

    If I were President, C-Span would be the #1 network. Anytime someone in government lied to the people or engaged in any dishonest or unwise practice they would come before me and the American people on TV in prime time and explain themselves. If we buy a $900 toilet seat and the procurement officer can show a good reason why, then the people would know that there is a reason. If someone lied to the people or the press, they’d be challenged in public. I’d invite in lobbyists and corporate Presidents for a conversation on live TV about issues they are involved with. “Exactly why can you sub-contract to a factory in China to make prescription drug ingredients but I can’t buy drugs made in the US but sold in Canada because they are sold for a lower cost? What do you mean, they aren’t safe? Show me.” Or, “Is it true Mr. Rumsfeld that you own a major interest in that vaccine company whose vaccine you just bought for the U.S. military? Or, “Mr. Cheney, why did you tell Congress that you have no financial interest in Halliburton when in fact you still receive stock options annually from them and it has increased by 4000%?” Or, ” Mr. Attorney General, how does using the Patriot Act to subpoena a list of women who had abortions fight terrorism, anyway.”

    Our country became fragmented because our people became frustrated. Criminals go free on technicalities yet dozens of innocent people have been proven to be in prison unjustly while prosecutors refuse to give them DNA tests. Conservatives NEED Fox News, but Fox News needs to be truly fair and balanced. No one philosophy should own the news coverage. Conservatives wouldn’t be so radical and so frustrated and so angry if network news was truly fair and balanced.

    Finally, tax the churches. The tax rate would be zero if they engaged in no political activity or discussion whatsoever. There is a big difference between teaching against abortion and teaching which candidate the church thinks best supports the church’s agenda. The church’s role is to teach morality as they see it and the congregation should be totally on their own to learn which candidate represents which view. Those that preach politics or have PACs should be taxed at 90%. It is not about religion. It is about money and trust me that the religions groups will do what makes them the most money.

    This is just a starting point. We need to become good world citizens. We kill off our friends faster than we can make them. We need to learn that when American’s work in factories located on US soil and owned by Americans, money indeed trickles down but when they are unemployed and Chinese workers produce our goods abroad, tax cuts flow the opposite direction and money trickles up much better. Give it to the rich and they hire more Chinese not more Americans and they invest in more factories in China built by Chinese. Give the tax rebate to a rich man and the fifteen workers who made his new yacht will benefit but give it to the minimum wage worker and durable goods manufacturers benefit, employing more workers.

    We need to learn that money into the economy is money into the economy. We can stimulate the economy just as well by spending on green projects as we can on wars and weapons. Halliburton will just have to go into a different business.

    And we need to learn that unless we find ways of surviving without oil, we can never win.

    Let Iraq and Iran live in the stone age if they want. If they are enslaved by dictators, let them rise up and fight for themselves.

    But then, what do I know.


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