An en banc Ninth Circuit 8-3 ruling on Friday held that border agents may not perform forensic searches of travelers’ laptops and other electronic devices absent reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. Currently, the Federal government claims that it can search such devices without any suspicion of illegal activity, and they do so routinely.
Here is an excerpt from the ruling:
The relevant inquiry, as always, is one of reasonableness. But that reasonableness determination must account for differences in property. Unlike searches involving a reassembled gas tank, or small hole in the bed of a pickup truck, which have minimal or no impact beyond the search itself—and little implication for an individual’s dignity and privacy interests—the exposure of confidential and personal information has permanence. It cannot be undone. Accordingly, the uniquely sensitive nature of data on electronic devices carries with it a significant expectation of privacy and thus renders an exhaustive exploratory search more intrusive than with other forms of property.
After their initial search at the border, customs agents made copies of the hard drives and performed forensic evaluations of the computers that took days to turn up contraband. It was essentially a computer strip search. An exhaustive forensic search of a copied laptop hard drive intrudes upon privacy and dignity interests to a far greater degree than a cursory search at the border. It is little comfort to assume that the government—for now—does not have the time or resources to seize and search the millions of devices that accompany the millions of travelers who cross our borders. It is the potential unfettered dragnet effect that is troublesome.
We have confidence in the ability of law enforcement to distinguish a review of computer files from a forensic examination. We do not share the alarm expressed by the concurrence and the dissent that the standard we announce will prove unmanageable or give border agents a “Sophie’s choice” between thorough searches and Bivens actions.