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ACLU challenges US laptop border searches

Civil liberties assessment still pending

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Privacy campaigners are continuing a legal challenge against random laptop border searches by US customs amid concerns there may be a racial bias in those delayed and inconvenienced by stop and search powers introduced as part of the war on terror.

The ACLU also argues that searches of mobile phones by US border agents in the absence of any reason to be suspicious also pose a unwarranted invasion of privacy while delivering few tangible benefits.

Customs and Border Protection agents searched over 1,500 electronic devices at the US border over a period of nine months between October 2008 and June 2009, according to documents obtained by the ACLU as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and published on Thursday.

The documents also show that customs (CBP) agents forwarded electronic files found on travelers' devices to other agencies almost 300 times.

Some of the travelers inconvenienced by these searches complained that they ceaselessly accused of wrongdoing or otherwise embarrassed or inconvenienced by the searches, which agents are not obliged to justify under tightened regulations in force since July 2008. The policy was started by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama government.

THE ACLU is concerned that travelers have been left unable to carry medical records, financial information, and photos when they travel without the possibility of government inspection for no good reason.

"The CBP's ability to take and view the personal files of anyone passing through U.S. borders without any suspicion not only presents an inconvenience to travelers, but also fails to protect sensitive personal information that is commonly stored in laptops and cell phones," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. "Fundamental constitutional problems with this policy exist, and must be addressed."

"The government has a legitimate interest in searching electronic devices where there is individualized suspicion of wrongdoing, but CBP's policy allows officials to exercise their power arbitrarily," she added.

The ACLU is concerned there may be an element of racial profiling in those selected for data searches. CBP promised to issue a civil liberties assessment of the policy within six months but failed to make that deadline and is yet to issue a report. ®

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