A federal appeals court in Pasadena, Calif., ruled that the federal government has a nearly absolute right to inspect the contents of the laptop computers and other electronic devices of international travelers entering the U.S., even without “reasonable suspicion.”
The ruling prompted a warning from the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) that corporations and their business travelers should limit the amount of proprietary data on laptop computers and other devices when travelers cross U.S. borders. It also warned that personal data, including photographs, finances and e-mail, are subject to examination by Customs and Border Protection inspectors.
The appeals court, reversing a lower court ruling, found that “reasonable suspicision” is not required to inspect electronic media because of the government’s “inherent sovereign authority” to randomly inspect arriving passengers and their baggage. The lower court had said electronic storage devices act as extensions of the mind and memory and should not be summarily searched. That finding was reversed.
ACTE is concerned that some business travelers have had their company laptops not only searched but seized. It participated in the case as a friend of the court, seeking to protect propriety data and intellectual property.
ACTE also noted that the government has no guidelines for travelers about what might trigger a secondary inspection or seizure of an electronic device. The appeals court did not address those concerns.
In a statement, ACTE’s global executive director, Susan Gurley, suggested the issue will resurface, either in Congress or in other courts. But she added, “In a time of heightened international security, it will take a brave Congress to rule that parties may not be subject to suspicionless searches.”