The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit challenging the federal government's right to search the contents of laptop computers at border crossings when the owner is not suspected of criminal activity. According to the ACLU, more than 6,500 electronic devices were seized and their contents examined at U.S. border crossings between October 8, 2008, and June 2, 2010. Nearly half of those seizures were made against American citizens.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old graduate student who holds dual U.S. and French citizenship. Returning to his New York home by train from Montreal, Abidor was interrogated and detained by U.S. border guards. His laptop computer was taken from him; when it was finally returned 11 days later, according to the lawsuit, there was evidence that authorities had searched his personal files, including online chats with his girlfriend. No charges were ever leveled.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Directive No. 3340-049, issued on August 20, 2009, and obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request, says: "In the course of a border search, with or without individualized suspicion, an Officer may examine electronic devices and may review and analyze the information encountered at the border, subject to the requirements and limitations provided herein and applicable law." You can find that and additional pertinent CBP documents here.
"Americans do not surrender their privacy and free speech rights when they travel abroad," the ACLU said on its website. "These days almost everybody carries a cellphone or laptop when traveling, and almost everyone stores information they wouldn't want to share with government officials."
Smart Traveler Mark Orwoll is the International Editor of Travel + Leisure.