U.S. border officials may seize electronics without warrants, court rules

If you frequent the American-Canadian border (or perhaps the American-Mexican border), you may want to make sure you're not carrying anything remotely suspicious on your digital devices - your laptop, your cell phone, your camera, your tablet, and so on. Or at the very least, you may want to consider very strong encryption solutions for your personal data. In a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth circuit last week, authorities are now given the power to seize your electronics without any warrants, and the electronics may be passed on to other sites for forensic inspection. 

As Computerworld reports, this ruling now gives authorities power to seize electronics for both ground and air traffic entering the United States. The earlier precedent was set almost a year ago, when a judge ruled that authorities at a Detroit airport had valid grounds to search and seize a man's computer on suspicion of him transporting child pornography from an overseas trip to Indonesia. This recent ruling has a very similar case, where another man was charged with possession of child pornography upon returning to the United States via Mexico. In both cases, appeals were filed over the officials seizing equipment based on suspicions of American border agents.

While the move to halt the exploitation of children is welcomed, privacy advocates and companies argue the move serves as a further erosion of an individual's right to refuse unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In particular, it opens up the risk of the federal government obtaining confidential company information. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, officials have confiscated approximately 220 devices over a eight-month period starting from October 2008.

With recent moves such as this, and the American government considering imposing entry fees on vehicle traffic crossing the American-Canadian border, officials should be careful not to upset the delicate balance between maintaining security and protecting innocent lives, and ensuring not much revenue is lost from frequent commuters crossing the border.

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