The U.S. border is vast – almost 20,000 miles around. But it’s actually even bigger by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) standards, which claim a 100 mile wide zone stretching into the country along the entire border. Add to that every international airport as entry-points into the U.S. and we’re talking about a huge number of square miles.
This is the area that DHS claims its agents (like the friendly folks at Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE) can seize and search electronic devices without any suspicion of wrongdoing. DHS has asserted in court that “there is no basis for the Court to conclude that searches of laptops or other electronic devices at the border should be subjected to a different standard than that for other closed containers.”
Because my laptop is so like a toiletry bag. The courts have granted federal agents broad authority at the border precisely to secure our borders, not to provide a nifty way to circumvent the First and Fourth Amendments to search computers they can’t legally get into any other way. But government documents show that about 5000 people have their electronics searched at the border. Among those who have been stopped and had their electronics searched and/or seized are several activists connected to WikiLeaks and even award winning filmmaker Laura Poitrus.
It’s always seemed suspiciously like border searches were being used as a way around the constitution. Now we have proof. In November 2010, David House, a friend of Chelsea Manning and co-founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network was stopped at O’Hare International Airport returning from a vacation in Mexico. He was questioned for an hour and a half about his advocacy work for the Support Network, his visits to Manning in prison and WikiLeaks. His laptop, cell phone, camera and thumb drive were seized and kept for months.
At the time, it seemed clear to us that House was targeted for his political activity and association with Manning. Now, documents released as a result of a lawsuit reveal that our suspicions were correct. House had already been questioned by authorities in relation to Manning’s case and called before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. At that time, the government wanted to search his laptop, but didn’t have the grounds for a warrant, so they found a back door: House was put on a government watch list called TEC. That watch list tripped an alert when House’s name showed up on the passenger manifest for his international flight from Mexico, so ICE agents at O’Hare knew to detain and question him and seize his electronics.
The released documents show that the reason for the stop had nothing to do with border security but everything to do with House’s activism. House’s laptop was kept for seven weeks and copies of his hard drive were made and shared with the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division. The lawsuit compels the government to destroy all data it got from House’s electronics.