NY Times editorial on laptop seizures by Homeland Security

An editorial in today's NY Times asks Congress to make Homeland Security stop seizing the laptops and phones of US citizens returning from overseas travel. Like that will ever happen.
There have been widespread reports of the government searching -- and often seizing -- laptops, BlackBerrys, iPhones and other portable electronic devices at airports. It is not clear how often these searches occur, and the government will not say. The Association of Corporate Travel Executives says that of 100 people who responded to a survey it conducted this year, 7 said they had had a laptop or other electronic device seized.


Laptop owners rightly complain that the program violates the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. Their legal objections, however, have not fared well. In April, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco upheld a laptop search at Los Angeles International Airport. After this disappointing decision, Congress needs to act.



  1. Congress acting? Just after they passed FISA allowing similar electronic searches? And Obama, the one who promised *change* going along with it?

    I hardly think so. Change *we can’t* believe in.

  2. Oh, Congress will act all right.
    They’ll act like they’ve never heard of the Fourth Amendment.

  3. My biggest objection to search or seizure of my laptop by ANYONE without proper oversight is that I have privileged lawyer/client documents on my drives, that those agencies are NOT legally allowed access to.

    We really do need more protection from our government in many cases than we do from “terrorists.”

    (Don’t expect to get it, though…)

  4. Oh, there is an error in this post. There is no fourth amendment, its like the Leisure Suit Larry games, it goes 3 then 5, the fourth one is just an inside joke.

  5. Which Supreme Court decision has created the precedent that Americans have no 4th Amendment rights at the border to our own country?

  6. There is no Fourth Amendment.

    Just like there is no Rule Six.

    You watch; they’re going to change the Fifth Amendment to “No Poofters!”

  7. I can’t recall the SCOTUS opinion off the top of my head, but it has long (and maybe forever) been settled law that neither citizens nor noncitizens have any Fourth Amendment rights at the border or its functional equivalent. Meaning, of course, that warrantless searches have long been the norm.


  8. Someone should make an instructable, how to set up an clean os partition, with your real hidden partition which cannot be booted into without some sort of code/dongle/sun in the right house situation being a part of the booting process. So that crossing the border with your laptop won’t be an issue. Just make sure you erase your ipod, not have any flashdrives on you, swallow your digital camera memory (hopefully it will survive your intestinal tract) clear all contacts/images/songs/what have you on your phone, wear an analog watch that only tells the time (extra points if it doesn’t actually work) and your digital information will be safe from snoopers. Granted not having ANY digital information is kind of suspicious these days so expect to be taken in the backroom, and have your physical information ‘rearranged’.

  9. Reports about power mad airhead “security guards” confiscating property and behaving like idiots makes me not want to travel as a tourist to the US. I’m sure I’m not alone.

  10. “Which Supreme Court decision has created the precedent that Americans have no 4th Amendment rights at the border to our own country?”

    Sadly, that one is easy to answer. The Congressional Research Service published an extensive summary of the law recently:

    “Few exceptions to the presumptive warrant and probable cause requirements are more firmly rooted than the ‘border search’ exception. Pursuant to the right of the United States to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into the country, routine border searches are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border.”

  11. I had my MacBook searched in Detroit after returning from a trip that took me to India and Thailand. My initial interview with customs went like this:

    Customs: Wow. India and Thailand?
    Me: Yes.
    Customs: Are you traveling with anyone?
    Me: No.
    Customs: That’s a lot of luggage for one person.
    Me: I got some gifts for my wife and daughter.
    Customs: Was this trip for business?
    Me: No.
    Customs: You went on vacation to India and Thailand without your family?
    Me: Yes.
    Customs: Blue line, please.

    He wrote a code on my customs declaration and I went to the blue line.

    In the blue line, a tag-team pair of early twenty-somethings checked my customs declaration and did a double take when one pointed at the code on my form. They took me aside and one ran interference with my bags while the other took my laptop aside and proceeded with an image search of my hard drive. After 25 minutes with my laptop and finding nothing of importance in my bags or computer, I was sent along and thanked for my understanding.

  12. If I’ve said it once I … don’t remember it: We need to be aware of laptop glucose levels, syncope, cardiac arrhythmia, panic attacks and cataplexy. Only you can prevent laptop seizures.

  13. someone wealthy and freedom loving needs to distribute hundreds of thousands of flash-drives bearing random encrypted files to travelers. The true reason for the oppression must be made manifest.

  14. I dunno, Mark. That’s the ruling class getting pissed off there, the people Congress works for. Something might actually get done about this.

    Most likely, it’ll be arranged so that rich executives can get a special don’t-steal-my-gear pass and the rest of us still have to suffer.

  15. I’m speaking on this subject next Sunday at Hope in NYC. I’ll provide an overview of the case precedents that resulted in this situation, why I think some of them were sloppily decided, what the most recent developments have been, and what people can do to advocate effectively for a change in policy. If you are at Hope, drop by for what will hopefully be an informative and interesting presentation if I do say so myself.

  16. Suggestion for civil disobedience:

    1. Exhume old laptop that you don’t need.
    2. Fill hard disk with pictures of lolcats and Office documents full of random text.
    3. Act nervous when asked where you’ve been, and finally admit to having visited [dubious destination].
    4. Hand over laptop when requested and leave airport.
    5. Chuckle all the way home at thought of Homeland Security having to go through 80GB of lolcats image by image looking for kiddie porn.

  17. Ken @20: Are you saying the rest of us are “anonymous” Internet “Characters” or “identities”?

  18. @2: “I’d like to know what was seized, what was the reason given, and were the items returned.”

    We’d all like to know, but the DHS isn’t saying.

    From http://xrl.us/kkkwy

    “To those who object to the policies, matters have been made worse by an apparent refusal by DHS to clarify any of its processes, activities, administrative safeguards or the number of travelers impacted by laptop seizures. According to Feingold, despite repeated requests by nonprofit organizations and the Senate Judiciary Committee, DHS (and Secretary Michael Chertoff) had neither satisfactorily answered questions nor provided a witness to testify at the hearing. ‘DHS did provide written testimony,’ Feingold said. ‘That testimony, which incidentally was submitted over 30 hours later than the committee’s rules require, provides little meaningful detail on the agency’s policies and raises more questions than it answers–questions that no one from DHS is here to address.’)

  19. There is a near zero chance of anything found by such laptop searches being preventative of an air travel incident. Though the potential now exists of your laptop having malware or porn etc PUT on it while an alleged “search for contraband information” is going on.

    Of course such things never would happen here.

  20. re: #20 angusm:

    This “government” is not too concerned about the rules. If they can ignore the constitution and wiretap and eavesdrop. I rather expect that regardless of what you left on the computer, they will find 80 Gb of kiddie porn.

    Then you can do your best to prove your innocence.

  21. “Q. My link-free .sig lines keep disappearing too.

    A. We aren’t big on .sig lines either, though they’re a lesser offense. Rationale: first, your name is already there in your message header. Repeating it a few lines later is redundant.

    Second, .sig lines eat up vertical space to no good purpose. The more messages you can see at one time, the easier it is to understand how they relate to each other. Pointlessly using up vertical space reduces the number of messages per screen without conveying any benefit in return.

    If your .sig lines keep disappearing, it’s because the moderators are removing them. Please take the hint and stop using them, because deleting them is bleeping tedious”

    I always thought sig lines were indicative of a weak ego.

  22. “I want to be introduced as “Calvin, boy of destiny.” But you have to say it right, pause a little after “boy,” and say “Destiny” a bit slower and deeper for emphasis. Say it, “Boy….. Of Dessstiny,” Like that!”
    – Calvin and Hobbes

  23. Speaking of lack of faith in congress:

    Poll: Congressional Approval Hits 9%

    In congressional news, the polling firm Rasmussen Reports says public approval of the US Congress has fallen to single digits for the first time ever. According to the latest survey, just nine percent of Americans think Congress is doing a good or excellent job. 52 percent of voters say Congress is doing a poor job, tying a record high.

    From http://www.democracynow.org/2008/7/09/headlines

  24. #19. Rather than lolcats, for maximum time wastage you need to fill it with public domain works in Arabic. Then instead of paging through to see if there is anything interesting, somebody will have to translate pages and pages of material. Unfortunately Arabic isn’t one of the choices in babelfish.

  25. And…you get free housing and regular sinus cleansings for a few years while they figure out that it’s just Om Kolthoum lyrics.

  26. #30:

    You could also save all of your lolcats as TIFF or TGA; and ensure you don’t have a copy of IrFanView on your system. Throw a few RickRolls on there, too !

  27. Ken, Don’t pay too much attention to Takuan’s snide asides; he’s a chain-yanking provoker who digs digging people. A few weeks ago he insinuated that I was a killer and a hypocrite. But if the Boingers are really worried about vertical space and bandwidth, thenruneveryfuckingthingtogetherlikethis.

  28. Jeez, Ken, where do you get these crazy ideas? Next you’ll be telling me there’s a kind of computer that stores everything as ones and zeroes.

  29. “chain yanking provoker”? Nahhh, I’m never that subtle. I’ll call you on the rest Buddy; prove it it retract it.

  30. @19.
    Hahaha. Best comment I’ve read on anything in weeks.

    Whilst them stressing over the hundreds of Arabic files would be highly amusing. I imagine the body cavity searches they subject you to whilst doing this might not be and even if they didn’t do this. I’d bet you’d end up on a No Fly List.

  31. Wow, a funny (but off-topic) side note (#7) that is neither offensive nor abusive is enough to trigger disemvowelling.

  32. In passing it should be noted that while it’s fairly well established that border and customs agents have the right to examine (if not seize for later examination) your computer it’s less certain that they can compel you to disclose any passwords to access encrypted files. Compelling a person to do so would, according to one school of thought, be a violation of a person’s 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. Basically (as others have argued) you have to surrender the safe but you don’t have to give them the combination.

    Of course if they’ve got a supercomputer at their disposal or you’ve got really weak encryption then that’s a different story.

  33. I love the idea of filling it up with files for which there is no application on the computer to open them. Maybe download a thousand pdfs of IRS forms, rename them as xls and then uninstall Excel.

  34. Someone here on BoingBoing once recommended creating a folder of 15,000 1KB image files, reasoning that 15 MB is a small price to pay to get a little payback for the needless search.

    Also, border searches are why I’ve resolved never to take a computer across international borders. If I need to, I’ll buy some server space and store a harddrive image then grab it once I’m at my destination.

    I could just Truecrypt the whole thing, but I don’t want to have to face the “Give us the password or don’t fly” choice.

  35. A question for those in the know: Suppose I created a TrueCrypt volume in a file of reasonable size, let’s say, 6 MB. Nothing too huge. Then I renamed it as a dll file, and put it in a directory with an actual app that has other dll’s.

    What are the odds that the $9-an-hour types in the airport would be able to figure out it’s not a dll?

    No, I’ve never done this, and no, Mr. FBI Man reading this, I’m not a criminal.

  36. funny how all the laptop searches, cellphone rapes and blackberry abductions have not yielded a single terrorist plot. It’s almost as if the whole thing was an ill-considered farce, run by incompetent baboons.

  37. @#38, TAKUAN:

    #34 posted by buddy66 , July 10, 2008 6:45 PM
    Ken, Don’t pay too much attention to Takuan’s snide asides; he’s a chain-yanking provoker…. A few weeks ago he insinuated that I was a killer and a hypocrite.

    #38 posted by Takuan , July 10, 2008 9:16 PM
    “chain yanking provoker”? Nahhh, I’m never that subtle. I’ll call you on the rest Buddy; prove it it [sic?] retract it.

    #89 posted by buddy66 , June 25, 2008 7:02 PM
    I am both an American citizen and a military veteran, and I counseled draft resistance and encouraged desertion during the Vietnam war.

    #98 posted by Takuan , June 26, 2008 12:55 PM
    how can someone who has killed counsel others not to kill without being a hypocrite?

    Xopher explained how in the thread. I didn’t have to worry my pretty little head about it—because I’ve never killed anybody. You assumed too much, too quickly. No killer, no hypocrite, right?

  38. @ #48, TAKUAN:

    Nathan Sales mentioned a laptop search that turned up a terrorist in his testimony in the Senate hearing.

    More recently, in 2006, a laptop search at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport helped U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers detect a potentially risky traveler. Once he was referred to secondary inspection, CBP discovered that he had a manual on how to make improvised explosive devices, or IEDs – a weapon of choice for terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. Inspecting the passenger’s computer, officers also found video clips of IEDs being used to kill soldiers and destroy vehicles, as well as a video on martyrdom.

    What Mr. Sales did not mention is that this person wasn’t randomly selected for search, but rather he was pulled for secondary screening after being flagged by an anti-terror profiling tool called “Automated Targeting System.”

    Mr. Sale’s failure to mention that fact makes the reference a bit disingenuous, as no one disputes the right of DHS to search laptops when they have a reasonable basis for suspicion. What is in dispute is whether DHS can search laptops at random. If anything this example demonstrates that DHS is better off focusing their searches on people they can identify as being suspicious through profiling tools, a point made by numerous people on both sides of the issue in the Senate hearing.

    However, as an abstract matter, there are terrorists, they have laptops, and they travel into the US. It is possible that DHS will find one through random searching. If you oppose random searches you have to be comfortable with not finding that terrorist. I am. The likelyhood of finding a terrorist this way is astronomically low and the cost to the dignity and privacy of travelers is extremely high. The exact same balance of risks and costs exists in our decision not to allow DHS to perform random searches of houses inside the US. Part of being a free country involves limiting police investigations to contexts wherein you have some reasonable basis for suspicion. If we throw that away we aren’t the same sort of country anymore.

  39. But did he turn out to be a terrorist? Or just a randommer with a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook and some shock vidz?

  40. did it occur to you that I was talking about my own credentials buddy? That you came into that discussion after the fact and were not indeed really the one being addressed? Go back and read the whole thread again.

  41. TAKUAN, earlier & elsewhere & to someone else, wrote:

    “ah! I see now. You were personally stung by my counseling young people to desert before they were trapped into killing the innocent for the profits of the elite and few. I stand by my words. Blood does not wash off. I feel sorrow for those who learned this too late or the hard way….”

    If you were indeed referring to your own credentials, however rhetorically worded, I lay the blame for misreading you on coincidental comment positioning and my own imagination. (Who would credit an old Trotskyist with being so thin-skinned?) Therefore, I am happy to retract my hasty accusation of slander, and hope that I have not slandered you.

    Concerning that conversation you had with Greg London about conspiracy, let me venture, however belatedly, that Karl Marx never wrote a truer line than, “The history of mankind is the history of class struggle.” No further conspiracies are necessary.

  42. “QUESTION: Were you surprised by how people commonly interpreted your statement?

    CHOMSKY: No, not at all. I expect the intellectual classes to behave exactly like that. That’s their historical role — to support state violence and defame people who try to bring up moral truisms.

    QUESTION: You don’t think that your statements downplayed what happened on Sept. 11?

    CHOMSKY: By saying that this was a horrendous atrocity committed with wickedness and awesome cruelty, but we should understand that the toll is regrettably not unusual? What’s unusual is the direction in which the guns were pointing. I think we should be honest enough to understand that.

    QUESTION: You’ve said repeatedly that the United States is a leading terrorist state. What is your definition of terrorism?

    CHOMSKY: My definition of terrorism is taken from the U.S. Code, which seems to me quite adequate. It comes down to the statement that terrorism is the calculated threat or use of violence with the aim of intimidating and provoking fear and damage in order to achieve political, religious, ideological and other goals, typically directed against civilian populations.

    QUESTION: Do you distinguish between different kinds of terrorism, and if so, how?

    CHOMSKY: There are different kinds. The U.S., of course, did declare a war on terrorism 20 years ago. The Reagan administration came into office announcing that the war on terrorism would be the core of U.S. foreign policy. To quote Reagan and George Schultz, terrorism was condemned as a war carried out by depraved opponents of civilization itself, a return to barbarism in our time, an evil scourge. They were concerned primarily with what they called state-sponsored international terrorism. So the Oklahoma City bombing was terrorism but not state-supported international terrorism.

    I take terrorism to be just how they define it. By that standard, it’s uncontroversial that the United States is a leading terrorist state. In fact, it’s the only state that was condemned for international terrorism by the highest bodies: the International Court of Justice in 1986 [for backing Contra forces against Nicaragua] and the supporting resolution of the Security Council which followed shortly after that. The United States vetoed it.

    QUESTION: How do you distinguish between what you consider U.S. terrorism and al-Qaida’s terrorism on Sept. 11?

    CHOMSKY: One is state terrorism and the other is private terrorism. “

  43. No, it doesn’t depend on a definition. It depends on whether he had committed any terrorist acts (including incitement). Saying “we found one” is completely wrong if all you can say is “we found some interesting, but non-conclusive, stuff on someone”.

    Citing “Does he have terrorist acts in his heart, or in his history” pretty much assumes the guilt of (this) person, by suggesting that because he had something “terroristy” in his possession ‘believing in terrorism’ or ‘acting on terrorism’ are his only options.. But it may be neither of these.

    I really wondered if all they had on the guy was the stuff they found on his laptop?

    If so, myself and many Americans would be terrorists too.

  44. the only way DHS et al can “fulfill their mandate” is by having every single America and visitor locked-down at all times. The North Korean model. They see no irony.

    Decius’s link re: ATS immediately made me think the suicide bomber handcuffed to the steering wheel may have been trying to enter the USA to escape duress. And being turned back found himself a la British ran IRA method, handcuffed to the wheel of a car bomb as a “suicide” bomber.

  45. Shit, what I thought was; at the US border in 2003, Ra’ed could have been an innocent, up-and-coming man, who may have flourished in American freedom, inventing wonderful things to improve the lives of everyone.

    No one knows why al-Banna wanted to enter the U.S. in 2003 – or what he would have done if he’d gotten in. And personally, I’m glad we didn’t get the chance to find out.

    Instead he got sent back and turns up two years later, having been forced to deliver and detonate a truckbomb, killing himself and 135 innocent people.

    Grim fuckin’ justice.

  46. Hey, I have this idea. We could track every movement of every person in the country.

    Instead of wasting so much resources on the TSA, how about implanting an RFID chip on everyone. Like the one we now use on dogs. Couldn’t be that expensive. When we buy 300 million of these, they should cost only a few cents each.

    Then set up millions of RFID readers throughout the country. We can get businesses to pay for all these readers. No need to spend government money. When a customer walks into a store, the reader will read their ID, and send a query to the government run server. The server returns the customer name plus some additional info (whether this person was a convicted child molester, or more relevant to the store, a shoplifter).

    The government offers access to the server for free, but makes it a crime to move the reader from its location (and thereby messing up the integrity of the collected data). Initially, the readers are optional. I’m sure plenty of businesses will go for it. After 5 years, every shop, office, factory, etc must have at least one reader each entrance. But many would one more than one. After 10 years, every house must have one.

    The government could install additional readers at places with few businesses, for example parks, and other places. If you are leaving city/town limits, you have to wear an approved transmitter, like those ankle bracelets that transmit your position at regular intervals.

    The madness at the airport could stop. Cause we would know whether you’ve ever been within 50 feet of a suspected terrorist. The useless binary no fly list can be discarded, to be replaced with a dossier for every person.

    If we think you’re going to blow up the plane, obviously we would not let you on board. Off you go to Gitmo instead. Free one-way ticket. If we know you’re a terrorist, but not yet actually blowing up a plane today, no problem. We’ll just continue to track you and flag more of your accomplices.

    Knowing the location of every person will not just help us catch terrorists. It will also eliminate many other crimes.

  47. @49, “Why do you assume the Gov’t would tell you of plots that were thwarted?”

    I like to call it transparency and honesty. It is possible to inform citizens about successes in the “war on terror” (if there ever are any) without deliberately and directly aiding those terrorists.

  48. Ken, some very interesting points. For me though, the definition of ‘terrorist’ wasn’t really key.

    I wanted to know whether they had persued (and won) a terrorism charge against this man, or simply found some bomb-related stuff and labeled him a terrorist, to boost the credentials of the system. Otherwise, calling someone, of whom you have only circumstantial evidence, a terrorist, would seem to be somewhat libelous (or politically biased, at least).

    Genuinely, my question was not one of definition, but of law. Was he charged? Did they win? Do they get to assert his actions as those of a man willing to kill in the name of terror? It is a very serious charge to level at anyone, yet we hear it thrown about everyday, like it’s nothing. I, for one, want qualification to the use of such a serious accusation.

    On a sidenote, my opinions on the matter are certainly not “obvious” and you really have no grounds to say so. Personally, what I was going on, was the fact that many, many people have copies of the Anarchist’s Cookbook (including me), and completely unrelated, many people have (not including me) videos of various military strikes (including attacks against coalition forces) in their possession. If these two groups intersect, have we found a terror plot?

    The obvious answer is: maybe (at astronomical odds).

    Most of the people will have this stuff for shits, giggles and history, no harm to anyone. But in amongst them all, statistically, there will be one or two who happen to also want to destroy something, or hurt someone. (I’m suggesting far more people have non-threatening, but still questionable material, than actual terrorists have actual plans and devices. I think it stands.)

    Does that mean this is a good criteria for weeding out terrorists? No.
    Not without a whole lot of other criteria. I wondered what their criteria/findings were, and what kind of scrutiny they stood up to.

    I don’t for a second think any of this is cut and dry, and I certainly don’t have a useful definition as such. In fact, I have both support and arguments for each of the examples you gave, and genuinely think the topic is incredibly interesting.
    But, I’m always wary of anyone using the word “terrorist” in an unqualified context, to sway policy in either the government or private sector.

  49. This legislation that gives the Gov the right to confiscate any electronics from any inbound traveler without having any reason whatsoever, is just plain utterly ridiculous.

    This does not protect Americans! This is oppression, not security. This gives any border agent the right to screw with any traveler for no reason at all. I can picture it now:

    Agent: Sir do you have any electronics?
    Traveler: Yes I have two Personal Computers with me, and an Iphone.
    Agent: Sir we MUST have those checked out at our off site tech facility. You have been randomly chosen.
    Traveler: Really, what for?
    Agent: We need to ascertain whether you are carrying data that may alert us to terrorist plots that you may be organizing. Also, we wanna make sure you don’t have any child pornography. You’ll get your PCs back in a month or so.
    Traveler: I don’t have any porn let alone child porn!!! And I’m not a terrorist! One laptop is personal, one is for business!! I’m only gonna be in the country for 3 days!! What the hack do you want my I Phone for?
    Agent: *draws gun* “CODE 5, CODE 5”
    *More agents swarm the vehicle weapons drawn; locked and loaded*
    *Months later due to a severe backlog the PCs are checked, many hours wasted, nothing on ’em. They are returned to the traveler who is in jail for resisting a data search.

    Any criminal hell bent on bringing “terrorist data” into the U.S. does not have to physically bring the data across the border on a memory device.

    Just about anyone is capable of hosting “sensitive” data on a private file server. They could then go to the U.S. and use the internet to connect to their private file server. Then, they could just download the “nefarious data”. This effectively circumvents the entire logic of this legislation.

    Not only does this legislation fail to provide any security. Travelers will believe that the U.S government will steal their classified and personal business data. The agents will also have an opportunity to tamper with the laptop, ie. load government sanctioned spyware and trojans.

    The only way to make sure foreigners aren’t going to obtain “nefarious data” would be to have a security officer escort every traveler who enters the country. The escort could watch them 24/7 to make sure they don’t download a terrorist plot. They would even have to sleep in the same bed as the traveler to make sure that they aren’t trying to sneak data under the covers using wireless technologies.


  50. gee, you think maybe the idea ISN’T to look for dangerous data? That maybe they have something else in mind?

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