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Airport Screening: Beware CBP Computer Snooping

Beware broad authority of immigration officials to search computers and other personal devices at airports

U.S. ports of entry – airports, seaports, land-crossings- are monitored by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agents (CBP), established as an arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003. Although CBP is the largest law enforcement agency within DHS, with more than 58,000 employees, as federal officers, CBP agents are only allowed to exercise the authority granted under federal statutes and regulations.

The authority to search at ports of entry, however, is broad-based. In fact, under the Fourth Amendment, searches of persons arriving at U.S. ports of entry and personal effects in their possession, including computers or other personal devices, are considered reasonable per se. Thus, CBP agents do not need to obtain a warrant or have reason to suspect an individual is engaged in illegal activity before performing a search. In other words, debarking passengers who present themselves for inspection to enter the U.S. may find their computers, i-pads, i-pods or any personal electronic device confiscated and searched without a warrant if there is “any” reason to suspect illegal activity.

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