image of laptopIn a case brought by civil liberties campaigners, a Brooklyn court has ruled that US Customs officers do not need to suspect a crime to examine travellers’ computer equipment at borders, Le Monde Informatique reported yesterday.

In the United States the border police may carry out checks of travellers’ portable computers and other mobile devices without having to justify suspicions that the content they wish to examine is connected with criminal action, an American federal judge concluded last week at the end of a case brought in 2010 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU believed such behaviour infringed the US constitution. However, Judge Edward Korman of the Brooklyn District Court did not share this opinion and rejected the case. The ACLU is contemplating an appeal.

The ACLU submitted the complaint on behalf of Pascal Abidor, a student with dual French and American nationality and two other associations, one which defends lawyers and the other press photographers. In 2010, Customs officers confiscated Mr. Abidor’s portable computer as he was entering the United States aboard a Montreal (Canada) to New York train as he was entering the USA. Mr. Abidor was studying the history of the Shi’ites in Lebanon and had downloaded photographs linked to the militant organisations Hamas and Hezbollah onto his computer. He was detained for several hours while his computer equipment was examined before being released with no further action being taken. He had disclosed his password and the officers searched through his private data, including messages he’d exchanged with his girlfriend. Some information was retained for the purpose of further inquiries after he had handed over his equipment.

For lawyers and journalists whose work entails maintaining keeping the data they hold confidential, such investigations by customs form a real problem and the lawsuit aimed to highlight the violation that Abidor’s treatment represented. However, Judge Korman asserted that Customs already had special procedures for examining this content which required suspicions of crime. Furthermore, he stated that searches of this kind are rare at borders and are already made within the scope of these procedures. In summary he states in his ruling, published by the ACLU, that giving reasons would not be appropriate because it is highly unlikely that one of the members of the plaintiff organisations had been subject to an examination of their electronic equipment at borders since, according to the judge, there is little chance that such a search would take place without reasonable suspicion. In view of the figures submitted by US Customs and Border Protection, Judge Korman believes there is a less than one in a million chance that a computer carried by a foreign traveller entering the USA would be confiscated.