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Originally published Saturday, February 27, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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No curbs on border searches of cellphones, laptops

In a recent nine-month period, U.S. Customs and Border Protection searched and seized 1,644 devices from travelers entering and leaving the United States, according to data the American Civil Liberties Union obtained through a lawsuit.

Los Angeles Times

In the last year and a half, civil-liberties groups and business travel leaders have complained about U.S. Border Patrol agents' broad authority to search and seize laptops and other electronic gadgets carried by travelers. But new information details the extent to which this has happened.

Debate over the searches picked up steam in July 2008 when federal officials issued a policy directive that makes clear that agents at airports and borders can look into your electronic devices without first establishing suspicion of wrongdoing.

In a recent nine-month period, U.S. Customs and Border Protection searched and seized 1,644 devices from travelers entering and leaving the United States, according to data the American Civil Liberties Union obtained through a lawsuit. The most common target: cellphones.

Of those searched or seized devices, 582 were cellphones, 398 were laptop computers and 259 were digital cameras. The rest included MP3 players, flash drives, hard drives, DVDs and other devices.

The ACLU data doesn't say how many travelers crossed the borders during that same period, but the border-protection agency estimates that 22 million travelers enter the United States per month.

So the number of people whose devices were searched "is much less than one-tenth of 1 percent" of the total, said Kelly Ivahnenko, a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department, which oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The new data were part of nearly 900 pages of documents obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in June. The civil-liberties group disclosed the information in January and expects to collect more.

The ACLU insists that border agents should be required to establish a suspicion that a traveler is breaking the law before they can search electronic devices.

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives, a nonprofit group that represents 2,500 members worldwide, also objects to the searches.

Susan Gurley, executive director of the group, testified before a congressional subcommittee last year, saying she worried that important data carried by business travelers — including confidential material — could be lost, be delayed or end up in the wrong hands during a search.

Ivahnenko, the Homeland Security spokeswoman, defended the search policy, saying the effort is not meant to harass law-abiding travelers but to catch terrorists, child pornographers and other criminals.

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