When customs officers stop travelers at the border and confiscate fruit or fake Rolexes, they perform a public service by preventing prohibited items from entering the U.S.
But what if they inspect the electronic contents of a laptop or smartphone?
There is nothing on a computer hard drive or memory chip that cannot be beamed anonymously across the border, so interdicting information is not the issue. Any information on any given computer must be presumed to exist elsewhere and anywhere. One customs agent cannot stop data from moving about the information superhighway.
So why would customs agents even bother to inspect a traveler's computer? There is only one reason: because it might reveal something about the owner.
This takes the inspection away from searching for contraband and into different territory: sizing you up.
Customs agents, of course, have always been able to do that. Until recently, however, nobody traveled with gigabytes of data about themselves, their families, their employers and 300 of their best friends.
The Supreme Court has ruled several times that the government needs no "probable cause" for warrantless searches at the border.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are now seeking to carve out an exception for electronic devices, on the grounds that the individual liberties guaranteed by the Constitution are just as sacred as the government's sovereign power over its own borders.
We hope an enlightened judiciary will figure out a way to restore some balance to those competing interests.