Border Laptop Searches Case Heats Up

Michael Timothy Arnold, an US Citizen who was recently arrested when a search of his laptop as he reentered the country from the Philippines turned up several images of child pornography. He was able to get the lower courts to honor a motion to suppress, arguing that the search was unlawful. Part of his argument was that the in depth search of his laptop was triggered by the discovery of legal pornography in a cursory search of the system. The existence of any pornography on a digital system should not serve as probably cause for an in-depth search, but the laws regarding border searches are somewhat messy.

In a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judgement on the case, the court accounts on several cases dating from as far back as the early 1970s which account for the powers that Border Control Agents have to conduct searches. In the 1973 case United States v. Ramsey (431 U.S. 606, 616), it was decided that “searches made at the border… are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border….” This particular interpretation of the Law does bother me at a pretty fundamental level, but it is the accepted case law, and as such, is important context for the analysis of the this decision. At least the Courts have acknowledged, in 1982’s United States v. Ross (456 U.S. 798, 823), that you have the same expectation of privacy at the borders whether your luggage is a handkerchief on a stick or a locked attaché case.

In fact, Case Law to date has basically held that Border Control Agents have rights to intrude “beyond the body’s surface,” without probable cause. However, the Supreme Court has left open the possibility that “some searches of property are so destructive that they require particularized suspicion.” And such lies the basis of Mr. Arnold’s defense.

His claim, is that the laptop and its contents are more analogous to the contents of the owner’s home (due to the amount of data it can store), or the users own brain (since it holds ideas, conversations, and data regarding habits). The home claim is completely false, in my opinion. Yes, the laptop can store an amazing amount of data, but it is clearly a portable closed container, more analogous to the locked attaché case mentioned above than a home. In my non-legal opinion, is that under current law, the Border Agents were completely legitimized in the initial search. Whether or not the existence of the easily found pornographic images should have triggered a full search is another issue, but the search was, under current interpretations of the law completely justified. The 9th Circuit agrees.

As a response, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) with the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) filed a brief of amice curiae with the 9th Circuit, trying to get Mr. Arnold another appellate hearing. Given the nature of the case, one of privacy at border crossings, it makes perfect sense that these associations are filing as amice. The basis of the brief is that the searching of the laptop, by definition, is a direct search into personal information, which is different than flipping through the pages of a diary which is an ‘incidental’ revelation of personal information. They base their argument against viewing a laptop as a traditional closed container, against the fact that the device cannot be used to smuggle physical contraband into the country.

However, digital images of child pornography are still illegal. If you were to carry a stash of printed documents detailing a terrorist plot, that would be reason for detainment and serviceable evidence in court. The data on the laptop is little different than the data on paper, it is merely a different representation of such data. And while such searches may require reasonable suspicion under the 4th Amendment, more than three decades of decisions hold that the 4th Amendment simply doesn’t apply to Border Searches.

The Digital Age has changed things. Most people are not aware of their digital footprint, the claims in Argument B1 of the amicus brief only go to show how little people think of their privacy in the digital age. Most people only think of the ease at which data can be copied when they’re creating those copies themselves, not when considering how easily someone in control of a system for even a short period of time can copy all the data which is contained within it. I agree with the EFF’s claim that copying that data does constitute a ‘seizure’, because while the government has not necessarily denied me access to it, they have taken a copy that I did not expressly authorize them to take.

Just because a laptop can contain an enormous amount of personal data, does not make it inherently unique from other containers. I could fill a shipping crate with personal, confidential information, and I would not have any reasonable expectation that customs wouldn’t go through it. What needs to be analyzed to determine the legality of the search is the inherent nature of the container, and not of the it’s potential contents. A laptop does not, by strict definition, contain large volumes of personal information. It usually does, but it doesn’t always. A notebook that I always carry with me can contain a lot of information that I may feel is somewhat private, but it is not special or unique from my Eee PC. The best argument that the EFF uses in the entire brief is that the existence of data on the laptop only proves that the machine was used for such activities, not that the person in question was responsible for that activity.

I agree with the EFFs goal here, I really, really do. I just think that claiming that 4th Amendment rights are being violated in a circumstance where the courts have long held that the 4th Amendment doesn’t apply is foolish. As long as the border search doctrine is held, as it relates to US Citizens at least, there is no method to correct this problem. We should be lobbying Congress, not the Courts, to ensure that measures are taken to ensure that the 4th Amendment is made to apply, at least in some degree, to searches of US Citizens.

Acknowledging that, under the current rule of law, things are unlikely to improve, Bruce Schneier has offered his advice, that we need to be more proactive in ensuring that we don’t take confidential or incriminating data across the borders. This can be accomplished several ways. By making sure that the system is clean before you cross the border, and by transferring anything you don’t want taken over a secure link back into the country. For business, this is easy. Set up a VPN, and make available ‘travel’ laptops to people who need to travel, which contains only the software they require to do their work. Any data that is required for work is taken via the VPN, and secure erasure tools are used to remove the data from the laptop. For the personal user, similar actions can be taken, by taking advantage of services that allow the storage of data (and the secure retrieval) on the Internet.

The law needs to change. It is highly unlikely that the 9th Circuit Court is going to overturn 30 years of case law, so we need to be approaching this battle from a different angle. I can see no reason myself why the 4th Amendment shouldn’t apply to US Citizens entering the country. Once I’ve proved my citizenship, I should be afforded all the rights that that citizenship guarantees me. Unfortunately, until the law is changed, I don’t see that happening.