In July, the Department of Homeland Security disclosed policies that showed that federal agents may copy books, documents, and the data on laptops and other electronic devices without suspecting a traveler of wrongdoing. But what DHS did not disclose was that since 1986 and until last year, the government generally required a higher standard: Federal agents needed probable cause that a law was being broken before they could copy material a traveler was bringing into the country.
The changes are part of a broader trend across the government to harness technology in the fight against terrorism. But they are taking place largely without public input or review, critics said, raising concerns that federal border agents are acting without proper guidelines or oversight and that policies are being adopted that do not adequately protect travelers’ civil liberties when they are being questioned or their belongings searched.
[…] In July 2007, the government dropped the requirement that there be reasonable suspicion to review material but specified that the review had to take place in connection with laws enforced by CBP, according to a copy of a policy the groups obtained.
Then, this July, the government issued its broadest policy to date regarding information searches at the border, allowing documents and electronic devices to be detained for an unspecified period. Moreover, they may now be copied without any suspicion of wrongdoing, the lowest legal standard.