Napolitano Urged to Act on Border Laptop Seizures

Border laptop seizures and Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) controversial policies on search and seizure of electronic devices at U.S. borders is facing a new round of criticism — this time, from the department’s own data privacy advisers.

In the draft of a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, the department’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee is pushing for changes to the department’s authority in scrutinizing travelers’ notebook PCs and digital media when entering the country.

In the draft, (available here in PDF format), the committee, whose members include academics and private sector representatives, called on Napolitano to give the department’s Privacy Office a role in reviewing its policies. The Privacy Office should also help develop guidelines to integrate privacy protections into these processes, the letter said.

“While certain DHS components may have legal authority to conduct border searches, there is a significant difference between looking at paper documents and searching through the volume of digital information that can be carried by travelers,” wrote members of the committee, which is charged with advising DHS on technology and other issues relating to privacy and data integrity.

The comments come as the latest reaction to a DHS policy, first published in July, that gives U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents the right to search and seize the contents of any electronic device brought into the United States by a traveler.

That policy sparked widespread protests and court filings by civil rights groups. It also led members of Congress to introduce bills in the House and Senate that seek to prevent the arbitrary search and seizure of devices by CBP agents.

Amy Kudwa, acting press secretary at the DHS office of public affairs, told that she expects the letter to be transmitted officially to Napolitano later this week, and that the DHS couldn’t comment until she’s had an opportunity to review it.

Kudwa also declined to comment on Napolitano’s stance on the issues raised in the letter.

“We’re not announcing any policy changes,” she said. “The secretary is looking at policies, programs and initiatives across the department.”

Control over CPB searches

Regardless of how Napolitano proceeds, steps are already underway in Congress to limit CPB’s search and seizure authority.

Last year, lawmakers introduced House bill H.R. 7118 and Senate bill S. 3612, also known as the Travelers’ Privacy Protection Act of 2008, which each sought to restrict CPB agents’ search and seizure of travelers’ electronic equipment and digital information.

Both bills, now in committee, were endorsed by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE), representing corporate travel managers for businesses in 82 countries.

[cob:Special_Report]Revisiting CPB’s laptop search and seizure authority also may reflect a shift in policy coinciding with the changing of administrations. Advocates have called on the Obama administration to ensure greater privacy protections, partially in response to criticism that the Bush administration subordinated privacy on national security grounds.

Other points the Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee made in its letter were that the DHS Privacy Office should continue to be involved in discussions on national cybersecurity initiative and should help develop consistent privacy and security policies for the DHS’s credentialing programs.

The committee also called on DHS to tackle fraud vulnerabilities in the E-Verify system, which lets employers check the work status online of new hires — and participation in which will become mandatory Jan. 15 for government contractors under an executive order signed in June. The DHS is facing a lawsuit from business groups over the order.

The committee also recommended that DHS develop new applications and technologies to facilitate privacy protection and launch an initiative, led by the Privacy Office, to develop a rigorous and methodical approach to data integrity.

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