Groups seek to challenge US gov't on seized laptops

Laptop searches at borders violate fundamental citizen rights, two groups say

The policy of random laptop searches and seizures by U.S. government agents at border crossings is under attack again, with a pair of civil rights groups seeking potential plaintiffs for a lawsuit that challenges the practice.

The American Civil Liberties Union is working with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to find lawyers whose laptops or other electronic devices were searched at U.S. points of entry and exit. The groups argue that the practice of suspicionless laptop searches violates fundamental rights of freedom of speech and protection against unreasonable seizures and searches.

The groups have the support of Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has argued in court that laptop searches are invasive because devices like laptops contain personal data, which people should be able to keep private. EFF has also argued that some searches have been conducted without suspicion.

"This lawsuit will not seek monetary damages for individuals who have been searched; instead, it will focus exclusively on fixing the unconstitutional policy," wrote Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director and lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a blog entry on Wednesday.

NACDL believes the policy "erodes fundamental privacy rights generally," the group said on its Web site. It "has a particularly chilling impact on lawyers who travel abroad with legal documents that are subject to the attorney-client or work-product privileges," NACDL wrote.

Last year, a document surfaced on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Web site that authorized U.S. agents to seize and retain laptops indefinitely. Government agents belonging to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is a part of DHS, were also authorized to seize electronic devices including portable media players and cell phones and inspect documents in them.

The DHS has defended the policy of searching electronic devices, stating that its ability to "inspect what is coming into the United States is central to keeping dangerous people and things from entering the country and harming the American people," according to the agency's Web site.

The ACLU is already challenging DHS in court over the issue. In August last year, the group filed a suit against the DHS after it was denied access to documents to learn about the policy. The EFF and the Asian Law Caucus (ALC) also filed a case last year against the DHS after they were denied access to records on questioning and searches of travelers at U.S. borders.

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