Beware What is Hiding in Your Laptop – And Who Wants to Look at It
As many readers will likely know, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — for whom we're sure we could find many a fitting and unflattering nickname, if it wouldn't land us a all-expenses-paid visit to Gitmo — recently released guidelines for the U.S. Customs Service giving agents carte blanche to search and seize travelers' laptops without probable cause, including U.S. citizens, who once upon a time were protected from such things by the Fourth Amendment. After much — well-deserved — outrage, someone is finally doing something about it, in the persons of Senators Russ Feingold & Maria Cantwell, who introduced legislation last week to put the brakes on DHS's searchmobile.
Under rules published in July, any laptop crossing the U.S. border is subject to being searched, copied, and indefinitely detained without any reason whatsoever — much as though they've all been classified "enemy computants." The move, as might be expected, has been denounced by civil liberties groups and individuals of sound mind across the country, and indeed in the international community, as defying the basic principles of liberty which the U.S. has historically embraced. The federal courts, who are generally responsible for protecting citizens from this sort of thing, have ruled in favor of the searches — proving once again that vision insurance for federal judges should be a national priority.
All that may be put to a stop sometime next year, however, as the bill introduced by Senators Feingold & Cantwell — the Travelers' Privacy Protection Act — would return the status quo that has served perfectly well for 217 years. Customs agents would once again be required to have probable cause in order to search an individual's computer, and would be required to obtain a court order to detain one for longer than 24 hours. Due to the short Congressional term remaining, the bill — or the identical one introduced in the House by Representative Adam Smith — will likely not see action until the 2009 session, however, its introduction underscores the outrage felt by citizens nation-wide. It has, predictably, had little effect on DHS, with (outgoing) Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff issuing hysterical predictions of lawsuits and Congressional regulations tying the hands of brave Customs agents and leading to an inevitable attack by terrorists.
Because we all know, Osama Bin Laden is hiding in Aunt Bessie from Boise's laptop, right next to the pictures of Cousin Jimmy's piano recital and her secret recipe for Pepto-Bismol pumpkin pie.