Mohamed Shommo, an engineer for Cisco Systems Inc., travels overseas several times a year for work, so he is accustomed to opening his bags for border inspections upon returning to the U.S. But in recent years, these inspections have gone much deeper than his luggage.
Border agents have scrutinized family pictures on Shommo's digital camera, examined Koranic verses and other audio files on his iPod and even looked up Google keyword searches he had typed into his company laptop.
"They literally searched everywhere and every device they could," said Shommo, who now minimizes what he takes on international trips and deletes pictures off his camera before returning to the U.S. "I don't think anyone has a right to look at my private belongings without my permission. You never know how they will interpret what they find."
Given all the personal details that people store on digital devices, border searches of laptops and other gadgets can give law enforcement officials far more revealing pictures of travelers than suitcase inspections might yield. That has set off alarms among civil liberties groups and travelers' advocates — and now among some members of Congress who hope to impose restrictions on the practice next year.
They fear the government has crossed a sacred line by rummaging through electronic contact lists and confidential e-mail messages, trade secrets and proprietary business files, financial and medical records and other deeply private information.
These searches, opponents say, threaten Fourth Amendment safeguards against unreasonable search and seizure and could chill free expression and other activities protected by the First Amendment. What's more, they warn, such searches raise concerns about ethnic and religious profiling since the targets often are Muslims, including U.S. citizens and permanent residents. (MORE)