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How Crossing The Border Can Get Your Laptop Confiscated

A report by The New York Times sheds light on how the United States government has routinely confiscated and searched the computers and electronic devices of people entering the U.S., even without a search warrant.

Specifically, the government relies on a so-called "border exception" to the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

The border exception, which has been upheld by courts, allows U.S. customs officers to conduct electronic-device searches that might otherwise require a warrant, as long as they have reasonable suspicion that a person entering the U.S. at a border crossing or other port of entry has committed a crime.

From the Times story, which cited newly released government documents:

To critics, the documents show how the government can avert Americans' constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, but the confiscations have largely been allowed by courts as a tool to battle illegal activities like drug smuggling, child pornography and terrorism.

In March, the Fronteras Desk reported on a case in which a federal court affirmed the border exception's constitutionality, but also said the government's leeway to confiscate and search people's electronic devices at ports of entry went only so far.

As we wrote at the time, in tempering the government's authority:

Judge M. Margaret McKeown, writing for the majority, said that in the digital age, computers contain the most intimate details of people's lives, including financial and medical records and private emails.

"A person's digital life ought not be hijacked simply by crossing a border," she wrote.

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