Sunday, August 3, 2008

Cross a Border, Squander Your Privacy Rights

Are you traveling across any international borders this summer? Is your laptop along for the ride? Does it contain any sensitive information: banking or other personal financial data, medical records, left-of-center political screeds? Or might your browser history reveal that you've been reading NC-17 rated blogs?

If you answered yes and yes - or if you give a crap about the dismantling of rights and liberties in the Land of Freedom - you might want to know what the WaPo is reporting:
Federal agents may take a traveler's laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed.

Also, officials may share copies of the laptop's contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons, according to the policies, dated July 16 and issued by two DHS agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ...

Civil liberties and business travel groups have pressed the government to disclose its procedures as an increasing number of international travelers have reported that their laptops, cellphones and other digital devices had been taken -- for months, in at least one case -- and their contents examined.

The policies state that officers may "detain" laptops "for a reasonable period of time" to "review and analyze information." This may take place "absent individualized suspicion."

The policies cover "any device capable of storing information in digital or analog form," including hard drives, flash drives, cellphones, iPods, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes. They also cover "all papers and other written documentation," including books, pamphlets and "written materials commonly referred to as 'pocket trash' or 'pocket litter.'"

(Read the rest at the Washington Post.)
So, you basically forfeit your entire right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure as soon as you commit the un-American act of visiting another country.

The WaPo also reports that one of my personal heroes, Russ Feingold, is working on legislation that would circumscribe the Department of Homeland Insecurity's power to rifle through your books, laptop, and chewing gum wrappers. However, the current guidelines have been upheld by one of the nation's most liberal courts of appeal, the 9th Circuit. This makes me wonder how you could craft a law that would withstand the inevitable DHS legal challenges.

Realistically, you, my dear readers, are not likely to get caught in this net. Nor am I. But in my experience, border guards have unlimited power, and a few seem to get drunk on it. About a decade ago, well before 9/11, an INS guard at JFK questioned my husband's green card with no cause whatsoever. He took sadistic pleasure in growling, "I could send you over to investigations!" (He didn't do it, probably because my husband refused to show that he was annoyed or flustered.)

Another time, my little family of four all had to go through the "suspicious people" line upon re-entry because the airline had omitted us from the computerized flight manifest. No, we didn't get searched, but I was grilled by the customs officer.
Him (frowning): So you're married.
Me: Yes.
Him (not ironically): So why do you have a different name than your husband?
Me (smiling too politely): I kept my name for professional reasons.
Him (with mounting hostility): What do you do, professionally?
Me (quaking by now): I teach at a university. I'm a historian.
Lucky for me, he stopped his interrogation before I was forced to cough up my women's studies credentials. I had the feeling that would've triggered a serious luggage search. I was so not going to explain that the real reason I kept my name was to rebel against the patriarchal history of marriage.

Maybe this guy was just a jerk who thinks it's great sport to make the "feminazis" sweat. Maybe he got his rocks off even more when he realized I was an egghead, thus an obvious member of the academic Fifth Column. More charitably, he might have been making sure that our marriage was legit - never mind that our sons resemble their dad as closely as if he'd spawned them through parthenogenesis. But let's be real. For a customs official, sniffing out sham marriages isn't part of his ambit.

And these are the people we're supposed to trust not to abuse their ever-widening authority?

If visible feminist sympathies make me suspicious, maybe even a potential gender jihadist (!), Homeland Insecurity would have a field day with the contents of my computer. Besides my tax returns, extensive medical information, and personal emails, my laptop also holds hundreds of articles on feminist topics. And then there are the books I've packed for this trip:
  • Martha McCaughey's The Caveman Mystique (a feminist critique of ev psych, thus all about sex and violence)
  • Elaine Pagels' Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (heretical as well as feminist)
  • Evelyn Fox Keller's Reflections on Gender and Science (ditto!)
  • Rachel Maines' The Technology of Orgasm (potentially obscene?)
  • Kathleen Bogles' Hooking Up (ditto again)
Geez. I guess I'm more seditious than I thought.

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