Checking Your Privacy at the Border

"If you asked [U.S. residents] whether the government has a right to open their laptops, read their documents and e-mails, look at their photographs and examine the Web sites they have visited, all without any suspicion of wrongdoing, I think those same Americans would say that the government has absolutely no right to do that," Feingold said in his capacity as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property. "And if you asked them whether that actually happens, they would say, 'Not in the United States of America.'"

The only way to be sure that your secrets are safe is to cross the U.S. border carrying nothing more sophisticated than a solar-powered calculator or a computer that's been specially "wiped clean" of any data. But even then, you are not off the hook.

Tracking Your Travel

Thanks to advances in technology and a questionable assertion of legal authority by the Department of Homeland Security, the federal government is now systematically tracking every U.S. citizen entering the country by crossing a land border -- collecting name, date, place of entry, date of birth, gender and photograph. Data on Americans who raise no suspicion at the border will be collected along with the data of people who do.

And that data will be stored for 15 years and can be made available to other agencies of the federal government for a variety of purposes. This new rule is heightened by the fact that 75 percent of all entries into the United States are land border crossings.

The government has long maintained records of Americans entering the country by plane or sea, but now with the advent of RFID-enabled passports, technology enhanced driver's licenses and new border crossing cards, travelers' information can be collected, stored and accessed in ways not previously available.

The Homeland Security Department has seized on that capability to create this new tracking database, without debate, oversight or approval of Congress.

While it's hard to know how broadly the information will be shared, the Privacy Act notice establishing this new system of records gives the DHS very broad latitude to share it with other agencies for routine uses regarding law enforcement and counterintelligence, including data-mining. There are even instances in which Americans' travel data might be released to the media.

Hopefully, Congress will act with legislation aimed at reining in the "no limits" guidelines for the egregious laptop search procedure. And public pressure could force DHS to modify the rules for the department's new travel tracking database. But in the meantime, even if gas prices continue to drop, protect your privacy by planning a "stay-cation" close to home.

Leslie Harris is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

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