Jawad Khaki, a corporate executive from Sammamish, was returning home from a business trip to Ireland and Germany last year when a customs agent at the airport asked him to turn on his cellphone.
He already had told the agent in detail where he had traveled and why, so when the agent began looking over the to-do list and calendar in his phone, Khaki was shocked.
"It was an invasion of privacy," he said. "I thought it was going too far."
Khaki's story joins what seem to be growing numbers of similar reports from people — many of them Muslims or of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent — who say that their laptops, cellphones or other electronic devices were searched or seized at airports or U.S. border crossings, and that they've been questioned extensively.
The heightened scrutiny is prompting concern and raising questions among a diverse array of groups, from Muslim associations to law firms, corporate groups and technology organizations.
Among their questions: What if a traveler's laptop includes corporate secrets, a lawyer's confidential documents, a journalist's notes from a protected source, or personal financial and medical information?
Some advocacy organizations say they've asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security how often such searches or seizures take place, who gets selected, what the government does with any copied data, who has access to it, what safeguards are in place, and how the data is stored and eventually destroyed.
But so far, the organizations say, they haven't gotten clear answers. Meanwhile, two groups have filed a lawsuit to get that information, and some businesses are taking a variety of steps to minimize their risks.
Even Congress has gotten involved, holding a hearing last month on the subject of "Laptop Searches and Other Violations of Privacy Faced by Americans Returning from Overseas Travel."
"This has the potential for a chilling effect," said Ken Myer, president and CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, which represents about 1,000 companies in this state. "If you look at a laptop that is carrying trademarks, confidential information, ... what kind of liability does that present to the company?" (MORE)