A federal appeals court on Friday said Customs and Border Protection officers cannot confiscate or download every laptop or electronic device brought into the U.S., ruling that people have an expectation their data are private and that the government must have “reasonable suspicion” before it starts to do any intensive snooping.
In a broad ruling, the court also said merely putting password protection on information is not enough to trigger the government’s “reasonable suspicion” to conduct a more intrusive search — but can be taken into account along with other factors.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges said it was a “watershed care” that gets at what kinds of limits the government must observe when it comes to technology and privacy.
“Electronic devices often retain sensitive and confidential information far beyond the perceived point of erasure, notably in the form of browsing histories and records of deleted files,” Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote in the majority opinion. “This quality makes it impractical, if not impossible, for individuals to make meaningful decisions regarding what digital content to expose to the scrutiny that accompanies international travel. A person’s digital life ought not be hijacked simply by crossing a border.”
The ruling says that Americans who carry laptops or other electronic devices when they go out in public have some expectation that that information is not open to a search if they made an effort to protect it.