U.S. News and World Report reported today about the large number of international travelers who have been having their laptops and/or USB drives “temporarily” seized by US customs officials when entering or leaving the country. According to the article:

The extent of the program to confiscate electronics at customs points is unclear. A hearing Wednesday before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution hopes to learn more about the extent of the program and safeguards to traveler’s privacy. Lawsuits have also been filed, challenging how the program selects travelers for inspection. Citing those lawsuits, Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, refuses to say exactly how common the practice is, how many computers, portable storage drives, and BlackBerries have been inspected and confiscated, or what happens to the devices once they are seized. Congressional investigators and plaintiffs involved in lawsuits believe that digital copies—so-called “mirror images” of drives—are sometimes made of materials after they are seized by customs.

The security value of the program is unclear, critics say, while the threats to business and privacy are substantial. If drives are being copied, customs officials are potentially duplicating corporate secrets, legal records, financial data, medical files, and personal E-mails and photographs as well as stored passwords for accounts from Netflix to Bank of America. DHS contends that travelers’ computers can also contain child pornography, intellectual property offenses, or terrorist secrets.

Excuse me, but what ever happened to probable cause? I agree that it makes sense to check electronic equipment before boarding a plane to prevent explosives from being smuggled onboard the aircraft. This is an entirely different level of intrusion, however, and one that I find difficult to justify.

When customs officials open a suitcase chosen at random from a group of incoming travelers, the intrusion is over within minutes if no contraband is found, and the person is free to go on their merry way.

But confiscating someone’s laptop for a few weeks? That can disrupt someone’s travel plans or completely defeat the purpose of taking the trip. And making a mirror image of the hard drive? That’s the general equivalent of making photocopies of every single page in a person’s planner. Think about all the personal information someone might have jotted down in the typical Franklin-Covey binder: credit card numbers, medical information, bank account PIN numbers, computer passwords. They can also find all your internet search history, so give a thought when you Google in foreign lands. Mirror imaging the drive can even give them copies of documents you think you deleted that haven’t been overwritten on the disc yet.

The good news, I guess, is that Congress is apparently holding hearings about all of this. The bad news? That doesn’t mean things will change any time soon. The Democrats have been showing a rather distressing lack of spinal material when it comes to standing up to the executive branch.

I’ve written before about disturbing things the government is doing in connection with our ability to travel freely to other countries. Things seem to be getting worse.

And I just don’t understand the relative lack of outcry over all this.

Actually, I do understand: people are scared of making themselves targets for this sort of treatment if they make waves. Just keep your head down, don’t make noise, and everything will be fine.

Too bad that’s a lesson I never learned. I wonder how thick my folder at the Department of Homeland Security is?

I find this all very troubling. Especially since I’ve got this real yearning to go elsewhere. See the world a bit, you know, before it’s all destroyed by global warming, war, and corporate exploitation.

Oh, well. It’s not like I can afford to travel, anyway, what with increasing fuel prices, the decreasing value of the dollar, and my mountain of student loan debt. Ah, the glamorous life of a grad student!

Just add it all to my list of reasons why Bush and Cheney really ought to be impeached.

jane doe

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