Wednesday, July 30, 2008

AAA Responds to Laptop Searches

The Fourth Amendment requires that federal authorities have a warrant to conduct a search and seizure of personal property. Routine border searches have long been considered exempt from this law, and “reasonable suspicion” is required to conduct non-routine and invasive searches. This recently changed when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal officials—namely, Custom and Border agents—can randomly search and seize electronic information stored on laptop computers, cameras, cell phones, MP3 players, and other devices without “reasonable suspicion.”

This poses obvious risks to anthropologists and their research participants. AAA President Setha Low issued a letter urging Homeland Security to reevaluate its policy. In the meantime (and as standard practice), we advise social scientists to code all identifiable information (names, locations, etc.), delete information that could used to identify or harm participants, encrypt any sensitive data, and/or store their research in a secure online database.

AAA is not alone in its response. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Asian Law Caucus, Muslim Advocates, and Association of Corporate Travel Executives have also protested electronic searches. According to the NYTimes, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) also expressed concern about the actions of the US Customs and Border Protection Agency during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the subject.

Have a specific concern or suggestion? Leave a comment.


John Norvell said...

Numerous online and print articles have reported that TSA officials may order travelers to decrypt encrypted data and confiscate the laptop, potentially to be kept for long periods of time, if the traveler refuses. This is true for removable media like flash drives and cards and media players as well. Until this policy is reviewed and changed, it seems best to encrypt sensitive data and transmit it through the Internet (a recent invention that Customs officials seem not to be familiar with) rather than carry it through.

John Norvell, Pitzer College

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