It appears that U.S. courts are about to reverse a 2006 ruling that customs officials cannot search the laptop computers of travelers without probably cause.
The government contends that it is perfectly free to inspect every laptop that enters the country, whether or not there is anything suspicious about the computer or its owner. Rummaging through a computer’s hard drive, the government says, is no different from looking through a suitcase. One federal appeals court has agreed, and a second seems ready to follow suit.
There is one lonely voice on the other side. In 2006, Judge Dean Pregerson of U.S.District Court in Los Angeles suppressed the evidence against Arnold.
“Electronic storage devices function as an extension of our own memory,” Pregerson wrote, in explaining why the government should not be allowed to inspect them without cause. “They are capable of storing our thoughts, ranging from the most whimsical to the most profound.”
Computer hard drives, Pregerson continued, can include diaries, letters, medical information, financial records, trade secrets, attorney-client materials and information about reporters’ “confidential sources and story leads.”
But Pregerson’s decision seems to be headed for reversal. The three judges who heard the arguments in October in the appeal of his decision seemed persuaded that a computer is just a container and deserves no special protection from searches at the border. The same information in hard-copy form, their questions suggested, would doubtless be subject to search.
Is there anything on your laptop you wouldn’t be happy to have played at JFK?