Posted: March 15th, 2013 by Militant Libertarian
A federal appeals court for the first time ruled Friday that U.S. border agents do not have carte blanche authority to search the cellphones, tablets and laptops of travelers entering the country — a “watershed” decision in the court’s own terms and one at odds with the policies of the President Barack Obama administration.
The ruling by a divided 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the most significant privacy decision in the digital age following the Supreme Court’s ruling last year requiring authorities to get warrants to place GPS tracking devices on suspects’ vehicles. Under Friday’s ruling, for the first time digital devices are granted limited relief from the so-called “border search exception” of U.S. law that allows international travelers — including U.S. citizens and their luggage and vehicles — to be searched for any reason as they enter the country.
“A person’s digital life ought not be hijacked simply by crossing a border. When packing traditional luggage, one is accustomed to deciding what papers to take and what to leave behind,” Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote (.pdf) for the 8-3 court. “When carrying a laptop, tablet or other device, however, removing files unnecessary to an impending trip is an impractical solution given the volume and often intermingled nature of the files. It is also a time-consuming task that may not even effectively erase the files.”