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U.S. defends laptop searches at the border

Courts have upheld routine checks of Americans' hard drives at the border. Critics say they're anything but routine.

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"The idea that we would create some kind of sanctuary for criminals and terrorists to carry things across the border to me is absolutely ludicrous," says James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "It's also unrealistic to require probable cause when you think about the millions of people a day who come in and go out of the country."

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People who've had their laptops and other electronic devices searched and seized believe that it's reasonable and constitutional to expect a higher level of suspicion before customs officials take their laptop.

Amir Khan, an information technology consultant from the San Francisco area, has had his laptop searched twice on returning to the US from business abroad. Once, a customs official took it away for more than two hours.

"I don't know what he did with it. He could have planted malicious software or copied files," Mr. Khan says. "It was very intrusive and I think unreasonable. The Fourth Amendment makes it clear you can't just stop anybody in the street and start searching them and their things."

Many people, particularly in the business community, also say that a laptop is more like a virtual office than a piece of baggage. In addition, they believe the government should be required to tell people what it does with the information it copies.

"Right now, [DHS] seems to believe that it can hold anything it wants from your laptop, BlackBerry, or cellphone indefinitely," says Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives in Alexandria, Va. "There are no limits on what they can do with it or whether they can share it with any third party."

Ms. Gurley and others in the business community would like DHS to be required to come up with a set of rules that determine what can be done with the information and how long it can be held. Civil rights advocates would like to see Congress go even further and determine that a search of an electronic device is invasive and requires probable cause.

"We treat our laptops, BlackBerrys, and cellphones as an extension of our brains. They can contain our most intimate thoughts," says Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union.

As for creating a "sanctuary" for terrorists to bring in lethal plans, Mr. Sparapani counters: "Any terrorist worth his or her salt would send that stuff in an encrypted file from a remote location to a remote server somewhere in the United States."

In an e-mail, DHS says its officers "have the responsibility to check items such as laptops and other personal electronic devices to ensure that any item brought into the country complies with applicable law and is not a threat to the American public."

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