Leadership Journal Archive
October 12, 2007 - January 19, 2008

June 30, 2008

CBP Laptop Searches


As the nation’s frontline border agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encounters more than one million travelers every day at U.S. ports of entry and is responsible for enforcing more than 600 federal laws at the border, including laws relating to narcotics, intellectual property, child pornography and other contraband, and terrorism.

Our ability to inspect what is coming into the United States is central to keeping dangerous people and things from entering the country and harming the American people. One of our most important enforcement tools in this regard is our ability to search information contained in electronic devices, including laptops and other digital devices, for violations of U.S. law, including potential threats.

These searches have helped limit the movement of terrorists, individuals who support their activities, and other threats to national security. During border inspections of laptops, CBP officers have found violent jihadist material, information about cyanide and nuclear material, video clips of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), pictures of high-level Al-Qaeda officials, and other material associated with people seeking to do harm to our country. For example:
  • On November 14, 2006, Detroit CBP Officers inspected the baggage of an Ethiopian-born, naturalized U.S. citizen based on a law enforcement tip that he was attempting to smuggle currency into the United States. The inspection revealed approximately $79,000 in unlawful U.S. currency. CBP then reviewed his laptop computer and discovered information about cyanide and nuclear material. The individual pleaded guilty to bulk cash smuggling and making false statements. He was sentenced to twelve months in prison.
  • On September 26, 2006, an individual, traveling on an F-1 student visa arrived at Minneapolis St. Paul Airport from Amsterdam. He was selected for secondary screening. A review of his laptop computer revealed numerous video clips of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) being exploded. Another file on the computer showed the individual reading his will and included pictures of high-level Al-Qaida officials. Based on this and further derogatory information uncovered by computer forensics, the individual was refused admission, convicted of visa fraud, and removed from the country.
  • On February 22, 2007, an individual arrived at the San Francisco International Airport seeking admission as a U.S. lawful permanent resident. CBP referred him to secondary inspection based on his behavior and questions by CBP officers. During an inspection of the individual’s laptop computer, officers discovered violent jihadist materials. This evidence led to expert testimony in immigration proceedings that identified the individual as a target for a terrorist group recruiting. His laptop was seized as evidence in this case and he is in removal proceedings.
CBP border searches also have uncovered intellectual property rights violations and child pornography:
  • On December 6, 2004, a Canadian national suspected of stealing proprietary software programs from a U.S. company and attempting to sell the software to the People’s Republic of China arrived in Orlando, Florida, to attend a defense conference. ICE agents coordinated with CBP to conduct a border search of the individual and his belongings when he entered the United States. A preliminary search of his laptop revealed software belonging to the American company. On June 18, 2008, he was sentenced in the Northern District of California to two years incarceration for violations of the Economic Espionage Act and the Arms Export Control Act. He also received a $10,000 fine and 3 years probation. This joint ICE and FBI investigation was made possible by information gained by the initial CBP border search of the individual’s laptop and portable hard drive.
  • And on July 17, 2005, an individual arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on a flight from Manila, Philippines. He was selected for a secondary examination and exhibited nervous behavior when questioned about the purpose of travel to Manila. After failing to provide consistent answers about his occupation and purpose of travel, a declaration was obtained and the individual’s luggage was inspected. Upon inspection of his laptop and CDs found in the individual’s luggage, officers found images of child pornography.
It is not our intent to subject legitimate travelers to undue scrutiny, but to ensure the safety of the American public. In conducting these searches, we are fully dedicated to protecting the civil rights of all travelers. Similar to our efforts with respect to vehicles, suitcases, backpacks, hard-copy documents, and conveyances, our examinations of laptops and other digital devices are consistent with longstanding constitutional authorities at the border and have been affirmed by federal courts throughout the country, including most recently the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Moreover, CBP officers adhere to strict constitutional and statutory requirements, including the Trade Secrets Act, which explicitly forbids federal employees from disclosing, without lawful authority, business confidential information they may access as part of their official duties. We also protect information that may be uncovered during examination as well as private information that is not in violation of any law.

We have a responsibility to ensure that any item brought into the country complies with the law and is not a threat to the American public. To treat our inspections of digital media at the border differently from any other documents or conveyances would give terrorists and criminals an advantage they should not have and that our nation cannot afford.

Jayson Ahern
Deputy Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection

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45 Comments:

  • Wow thanks for the insight!

    By Blogger David Money, At July 2, 2008 8:40 PM  

  • So, five cases in about five years justify such a significant interferance with the privacy of millions of travellers? Sorry, you are going way too far with that.
    If there is a hint or other indicator that would be a different thing - but to break into somebody's privacy just because you can is not the right thing to do. The so praised American Freedom is going downhill because of fear that is being created by people who only follow their own interests. Control is not always the best answer.

    Tom

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At July 10, 2008 11:31 AM  

  • Sir,
    What about those questions that we get when we want to enter our country like "what you have been doing in X country?". That's nobody business. The law is to protect OUR borders, let the others protect theirs. The accurate question should be "what is your intention to come to the US?"..."well, I live and work here", not what I did or do in another country.

    I don't have to go in specifics with any agent. The quantity of abuse of power that I keep seeing at the ATL airport is beyond my logic. From ones who want to "call at your number", others just to stop me because they want without giving any explanation of why I have been stop or just contradicting themselves when I answer something that does not please them.

    As far as you mentioned just few cases, why you don't focus on the "few" cases of people complaining while LEGALLY entering our borders with LEGALLY and ACCURATE documents still find such a hassle. That by the way, you and USCIS never get along with.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At July 13, 2008 11:52 PM  

  • Another schizophrenic attempt to protect the constitution by breaking it. We should be used to it by now.
    Still we are disapointed to say the least. I saw the congressional? hearing on Cspan (the real news channel) It's also frightening to hear which kink of data is kept even after nothing illegal has been found and the laptop is returned. Also scary to hear that the guidlines/policies for laptopsearches are not public yet and the head of the DHS just considers to make it public when he was asked by a Congress woman.
    Very Kafka'ish. (Franz Kafka, The Trial)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At July 19, 2008 3:50 AM  

  • Those who are willing to sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 3:42 PM  

  • As far as I am concerend, I am going to avoid flying altogether directly because of TSA's ridiculous policies. Go ahead and pat yourselves on the back, because this handful of "success stories" - and I use that term loosely - is one drop in the sea of anger and frustration your incompetent agency inflicts on everyday, law-abiding passengers.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 3:43 PM  

  • I love this part:

    "It is not our intent to subject legitimate travelers to undue scrutiny, but to ensure the safety of the American public. In conducting these searches, we are fully dedicated to protecting the civil rights of all travelers. Similar to our efforts with respect to vehicles, suitcases, backpacks, hard-copy documents, and conveyances, our examinations of laptops and other digital devices are consistent with longstanding constitutional authorities at the border and have been affirmed by federal courts throughout the country, including most recently the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit."

    Apparently DHS as well as the 9th circuit needs to go back and read the 4th amendment.

    http://www.gpoaccess.gov/constitution/html/amdt4.html

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
    "

    I do not see a clause in there that says "unless DHS feels the need to".

    It's unconstitutional. You need a warrant, and to get a warrant, you need probably cause. You can ask to look in my belongings, but unless I give my permission, you need a warrant. If you chose to do so anyway without one, anything you find is not admissible in a court of law.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 4:23 PM  

  • Hmm.

    I fully support this, now, when terrorists enter the us, they'll leave their data at home! Or store it online!


    Great stuff! A big NO towards terrorists smuggling laptops in the US!!!!!

    /sarc

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 4:50 PM  

  • And yet another government agency seeks to deprive us of our Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure. I guess the old saying 'but where upon probable cause or warrant shall issue...' but HEY - you just must be a terrorist hiding in American clothing if you don't submit, citizen! SUBMIT - OR ELSE YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO HIDE!

    By Blogger ReMaster, At August 1, 2008 5:20 PM  

  • Crazy brown shirts.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 5:24 PM  

  • "We also protect information that may be uncovered during examination as well as private information that is not in violation of any law."

    In my opinion, you'd protect it best by not accessing it at all. Ditto all the above comments.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 6:04 PM  

  • What's up with the guy you arrested on intellectual property rules? Copyright law is civil law. Is CBP hired by corporations to enforce their laws for them? Which corporations get these special privileges?

    By OpenID shii.org, At August 1, 2008 6:12 PM  

  • This is why I will stay as far from the Unites States as I can. I love your country, your people are amazing, your bizarre obsession with security at all costs truly perverse.

    I feel sorry that the land of the free and the home of the brave has stumbled so badly.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 6:16 PM  

  • This kind of single-sided anecdotal evidence cannot be used to support an erosion of an otherwise constitutional right.


    There is some degree of necessity to search those entering the United States of America, however it is ambiguous at best that US citizens have waived their 4th amendment right by leaving US territory.


    Further, to create a system of search and seizure which is not clearly outlined and subsequently pursued to the letter of the outline can only lead to an erosion of further rights.


    DHS, please clarify, justify and if need be simplify the reasoning for these kind of extremely powerful and potentially invasive searches of constitutionally supported United States citizens upon reentry to their home.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 7:23 PM  

  • Tell me again who the real terrorists and criminals are?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 7:23 PM  

  • This is ridiculous. Everyone knows the security theater that goes on the border and at the airports is just that..theater. DHS continues to be a useless bureaucratic agency.

    So now everyone will continue using the biggest illicit material smugglers in the world (Fedex, UPS, and USPS) to overnight their computer to them....Great, thanks for the inconvienence you guys.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 7:36 PM  

  • usa is being used as a mule by Israel. purpose to weaken, break, and rule the USA and continue taking its resources and using its people and military. DHS harassment of US citizens has effect of breaking people down, making them helpless and powerless. just look around you. US citizens are powerless and will tell you so.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 7:47 PM  

  • I will be dancing with joy on the day that every single person on DHS gets fired and the department is closed. Seriously.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 7:55 PM  

  • Search for what. Unless DHS is competent enough to seek out information regarding terrorist activity, some minimum wage workers trained in some fly-by 3 day course on "how to use computers and the TUBE 101", I highly doubt the effectiveness, not to mention at the cost of Americans' decency and liberty, of this campaign.

    What we have here is failure of understanding and lack of good judgment after September 11, 2001.

    No bomb or weapon brought down the Twin Tower. It was the "fear" that allowed handful of terrorists to take over plane full of passengers, only with a utility knife.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 8:06 PM  

  • You are living up to your name perfectly. You were named after Hitler's concept of a department of homeland security (direct translation from German to English).

    The TSA are the only terrorists I worry about. I used to be against welfare, but it was a much safer country when we paid TSA and DHS "employees" a welfare check instead of pretending to give them a job... harassing us.

    The reality is the DHS and TSA are nothing but a bunch of welfare recipient scum bags.

    By Anonymous I Hate Welfare Scumbags, At August 1, 2008 8:28 PM  

  • On July 4, 1776 the fate of thousands was sealed when our founding fathers declared the following:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    http://www.ushistory.org/Declaration/document/index.htm


    It’s disheartening to see a massive incremental budget wasted- at best on ridiculous theatre, at worst on illegal and un-American searches- all in the name of fighting an imaginary boogeyman.

    By Anonymous Semper Augustus, At August 1, 2008 8:50 PM  

  • Let me give my fellow Redditors a clue stick, it is sorely needed in these comments.

    Fact #1: You have not entered the United States of America until cleared by Customs.

    What does this mean?

    The the questions about the 4th Admendment are irrelevant.

    YOU'RE NOT IN THE COUNTRY!!! You're not in your home, or your car or any other dwelling that provides a reasonable expectation of privacy.

    Don't believe me, ask the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals:

    http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/ca9/newopinions.nsf/6D5D931898D8168188257432005AC9B8/$file/0650581.pdf?openelement

    You'll read about the "Border Exception"

    You will be happy to note, that Border Agents have limits. Reasonable suspicion is required to search beyond the skin.

    United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 541 (1985)

    Did I take the troll bait? Maybe I'm just feeding the trolls. If I am, I apologize to the readers of this blog.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 9:10 PM  

  • Fact #1: You have not entered the United States of America until cleared by Customs

    What does this mean?

    -snip-

    YOU'RE NOT IN THE COUNTRY!!!


    So that means that only international laws and treaties apply.
    It also means that those at DHS and Customs are outside their juristiction.

    See Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 17.2 and Article 12. There also other treaties and/or marine law that apply.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 11:24 PM  

  • The founding fathers would be beyond appalled that government intrusion into the lives of free people has gone this far.

    What was the point of fighting Communism and the Cold War? The KGB is now running America.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 11:24 PM  

  • That is an interesting argument - that US government agents are not required to respect the rights guaranteed in the US constitution until you the traveler are officially in the US. It seems to me that when an agent of the US government is acting officially, anywhere in the world, it is still the US government and that agent is still bound by the US Constitution. I cannot fathom how US constitutional law would not apply to official US government actions just because the person affected is not "officially" on US soil. Consider this, if the US constitution does not apply to government agents in those circumstances, then under what law are they operating?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 11:26 PM  

  • Man, it's great we have such a concrete threshold as "reasonable suspicion". Is that similar to "he looked at me funny?" Next thing you'll reveal to us is that customs agents only search people coming from other countries.

    DHS needs to be torn down and restaffed with competent leaders, if not eliminated from the budget entirely.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 1, 2008 11:29 PM  

  • Pics and video or they didn't happen.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 2, 2008 12:45 AM  

  • The ridiculous part of this policy, which was plainly demonstrated by the examples given, was that this kind of search is only effective for those people who do not use encryption. There is a real practical difference between information and real objects and the fact of encryption is one of those major differences.

    The result is that this policy is only effective at causing trouble for pathetic and poorly informed travelers and completely by-passes anybody with the slightest sophistication. It's the equivalent of putting all the city police officers on vice squad busting dime bag dope smokers and prostitutes while totally ignoring the major dealers. The result is simply creating an atmosphere of the pigs versus the people especially when it is estimated that eighty percent of the songs on iPods, which cannot be encrypted, are pirated. Why would authorities intentionally create policies which create this situation where only the average citizen is being hassled and the liklihood of actually preventing terrorism is close to nil.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 2, 2008 12:50 AM  

  • "Fact #1: You have not entered the United States of America until cleared by Customs."

    That's crap... So if an American citizen slices someone with a knife before they go through customs at JFK from a flight from Spain, they're free from US prosecution? They'll be deported back to the Madrid to stand trial? They'll be tried in US courts, or shipped off to gitmo.

    It's American soil, American dhs/tsa agents working for a man who swore to uphold the constitution and it's American citizens that are having their rights trampled upon.

    It's illegal seizure, followed by an illegal search. Americans should be friggin' burning down congress over this. All the crap that your current administration has pulled off... it boggles me just how retarded half of you are to lay down and accept it and sickens me how sheepish the other half of you are to not do something about it except yammer away on the internet ad nauseum. Online petitions, comments, emails... they are about as easy for a bureaucrat to delete and ignore as a penis enlargement spam message. Christ, McCain doesn't even know how to use a computer, yet 50% of you will still probably vote for him.

    If you don't like what you've got, change it, fight it, band together, march on washington en masse, demand change, don't give up, do not turn the other cheek.

    Get up and DO SOMETHING instead of sitting there comfy cozy with your grand latte at starbucks writing blog comments about it, it's your right, your obligation to effect change when it's due.

    FIGHT IT!

    By Anonymous Trent, At August 2, 2008 12:53 AM  

  • Your so-called "Fact #1" is both wrong and irrelevant.

    1. You are in the United States as soon as you leave international waters. Do you claim that if you rob someone before entering customs, you can't be prosecuted under U.S. law?

    2. The Constitution says "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." This is a right of the people and a limitation on the acts of the U.S. government, it does not depend where you are.

    The link you provided does refer to decisions that "Searches of international passengers at American airports are considered border searches because they occur at the “functional equivalent of
    a border”", and a court decision stating: "The authority of the United States to search the baggage of arriving international travelers is based on its inherent sovereign authority to protect its territorial integrity. By reason of that authority, it is entitled to require that whoever seeks entry must establish the right to enter and to bring into the country whatever he may carry." This is not the same as not being in the country.

    Since courts have repeatedly upheld border searches, your best bet is to leave your electronics at home or use good disk encryption such as TrueCrypt.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 2, 2008 1:48 AM  

  • Why should anyone trust the agencies and people performing such searches?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 2, 2008 4:43 AM  

  • Hmmm, I didn't find any statistics as to how many illegal mp3's you have found in the electronic devices you so eagerly "request" or how many terrorist attacks you have prevented by searching the electronic devices you are so keen to peruse at you convenience.
    Psst, the USA is destroying itself from within.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 2, 2008 5:04 AM  

  • All the comments nearly unanimously against the DHS and its invasive, illegal, immoral, racist policies. Yet Chertoff will never give them up until he is forced to, because force is the only language he understands.

    But we WILL be around to see this thug behind bars and his criminal "agency" disbanded and discredited.

    By Blogger BlognDog, At August 2, 2008 6:10 AM  

  • This is the problem... A terrorist doesn't need to carry a laptop with them. They just need to upload all their data before leaving one country, and download it all in a new laptop when they arrive.

    The only people who are getting searched are the ones with nothing to hide, it only encourages the hiding of information to save the inconvenience their governments place on them.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 2, 2008 7:00 AM  

  • Sir,
    all this random hassle is because authorities don't want to "profile" the passengers.
    They fear the danger to be suited as racist.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 2, 2008 7:47 AM  

  • This is fantastic.
    I'm just waiting for the Chinese government to impose the same searches at its borders, and the European Union as well, and well, just about any other country who cares.
    I'm sure we will all be a lot safer then with our private data in the hands of so many well-meaning and friendly border agents.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 2, 2008 9:07 AM  

  • Contradictions.

    US is becoming a country full of contradictions, 100 acts and policies to protect privacy, 100 acts and policies for human rights, 100 acts and policies for freedom and democracy, while you are violating them all.
    You know when a country falls apart, when it's basic/root beliefs are not practiced, becomes old and turns out to be a lie, just like what happened to Russia when the idea of Communalism was not practiced as preached, and was no longer a root belief, just like what happened to the Islamic empire at the early ages when their root beliefs are no longer practiced, and just preached.

    So i can see US future very clearly. history repeats itself, but we dont learn from it

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 3, 2008 6:04 AM  

  • all I gotta say is that this is a bunch of "bull****"... They want to "ensure the safety of American Public"...yeah right. They do that by taking rights from you. How convoluted is that?

    By Blogger Igor, At August 3, 2008 12:04 PM  

  • Our ability to inspect what is coming into the United States is central to keeping dangerous people and things from entering the country and harming the American people. One of our most important enforcement tools in this regard is our ability to search information contained in electronic devices, including laptops and other digital devices, for violations of U.S. law, including potential threats.

    There is a tradeoff between Americans' security and their freedom and privacy. The tradeoff is not always a simple one.

    My gut reaction is that national security and terrorism are the only legitimate rationales for warrantless information searches of re-entering US citizens.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 3, 2008 2:34 PM  

  • Those who are willing to sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. Said by a true american. if you don't know who it was, do some reading and study some history and see what country from the late 30's and 40's we are becoming.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 4, 2008 2:29 AM  

  • A laptop is NOT the same as a briefcase. A laptop is more like 10,000 briefcases, containing our lives, and our privacy. A laptop contains everything that is US.

    The federal government and its contractors have already proven they cannot be trusted with our personal information, and there are NO sanctions against them for "mistakenly" spreading it around the world. Why, in the name of all that is holy, should we possibly trust the people who made a woman drink her own breast milk and other similarly "trained" individuals with either our personal information, or with deciding whether that music I ripped from my own CDs is "infringing" or not?

    Please, this is yet another naked power grab.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 6, 2008 2:05 PM  

  • This might be a good idea if it wasn't for humans handling this process. Dear...this is not the way to go. Please reconsider. Look at me talking to the wind as this will only grow worse for Americans and the world. Peace and good will towards men...God help us all.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 7, 2008 10:34 AM  

  • Those who are willing to sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 14, 2008 1:44 PM  

  • I'm glad the DHS finally showed a willingness for some sort of transparency. The fact is, however, that things are no different. Imagine the actions of a total moron, dangerously and criminally inept, but their work shielded from view as their office windows are 1 way mirrors facing outward. The only difference now is, the mirror works both ways.

    These people may show us a bit more of how they operate, but I could care less. I am genuinely embarrassed to say I'm American when anyone overseas asks, and I am more afraid of my own government and these goons than I ever was of some islamic terrorists.

    DHS, TSA, YOU are terrorists. You have done more to frighten me and rob me of my dignity at the airport in front of everyone, and trash my civil rights more than any terrorist ever has. You should all be behind bars.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 14, 2008 10:30 PM  

  • Everything in security involves trade-offs. Therefore it is important to prioritize our spending. It is also important to analyze if the spendings are worth it.

    By Anonymous Datasletning, At August 15, 2008 7:29 AM  



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