Bill Hogan, a freelance journalist from Falls Church, Virginia, was returning home to the U.S. from Germany last February when a customs agent at Dulles International Airport pulled him aside and said he had been chosen for “random inspection of electronic media.” The TSA kept his computer for about two weeks. Fortunately, it was a spare computer that had little important information.
Maria Udy, a marketing executive with a global travel management firm in Bethesda, said her company laptop was seized by a federal agent as she was flying from Dulles International Airport to London in December 2006. Udy, a British citizen, said the agent told her he had “a security concern” with her. The agent copied her log-on and password, and asked her to show him a recent document and how she gains access to Microsoft Word. She was also asked to pull up her e-mail but could not because of lack of Internet access. “I was basically given the option of handing over my laptop or not getting on that flight. I was assured that my laptop would be given back to me in 10 or 15 days,” said Udy. More than a year later, Udy has received neither her laptop nor an explanation.
Under the Homeland Security Act, federal agents have been granted powers to take electronic devices and hold them as long as they like. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said the policies allow agents to seize any electronic device, including hard drives, flash drives, cell phones, iPods, cameras, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes, as well as books, pamphlets and other written materials, from anyone entering the country, including U.S. citizens. They do not even need grounds to suspect wrongdoing.
Soon after these abuses came to light, a Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the practices, but DHS refused to send a witness for the hearing and did not comply with the committee’s request to answer questions previously submitted to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. This prompted Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), who chaired a the hearing on the issue in June, to author the Travelers’ Privacy Protection Act of 2008.
The bill, if passed, would would require all Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents to have reasonable suspicion before searching the contents of laptops or other electronic equipment carried by U.S. citizens. It would also ban profiling based on a traveler’s race or ethnicity, allow people detained to witness the process of their laptop being examined, limit the time officials can hold a traveler’s hardware and provide compensation for damage to a traveler’s computer.
This bill is in the first step in the legislative process. On September 26, 2008, it was read twice and referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (introduced bills go first to committees that deliberate, investigate, and revise them before they go to general debate). Since then, there has been no activity on the bill.
I wonder if the bill will just languish in committee until it dies a natural death, as is the fate of the majority of proposed bills. I hope not. It seems to me this much needed legislation would correct some of the practices that are chipping away at our civil liberties. I must admit that I would think seriously before carrying my laptop overseas right now. It’s not the foreign destinations that concern me. It’s the far-reaching and abusive powers granted by the Homeland Security Act that are worrisome. My entire life is in my computer and it would be a severe blow to lose it for any length of time. How sad that I am afraid of my own country. I can only hope that some of these abuses will soon be rectified.