Wolfsdorf Rosenthal LLP

DHS Announces New Directives on Border Searches of Electronic Media


On August 27, 2009, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano announced new directives to enhance and clarify oversight of computer and other electronic media searches at U.S. ports of entry. The new directives address the circumstances under which U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can conduct border searches of electronic media consistent with the Department’s authority to search other sensitive non-electronic materials, such as briefcases, backpacks and notebooks, at U.S. borders.

DHS said the new directives will also allow the agency “to develop automated, comprehensive data collection and analytic tools to facilitate accurate, thorough reporting on electronic media searched at the border, the outcomes of those searches and the nature of the data searched.”

Between October 1, 2008, and August 11, 2009, CBP encountered more than 221 million travelers at U.S. ports of entry. Approximately 1,000 laptop searches were performed during that time. Of those, 46 were “in-depth.”

Among other things, related CBP guidance issued on August 20, 2009, notes:

Officers may encounter materials that appear to be legal in nature, or an individual may assert that certain information is protected by attorney-client or attorney work product privilege. Legal materials are not necessarily exempt from a border search, but they may be subject to the following special handling procedures: If an Officer suspects that the content of such a material may constitute evidence of a crime or otherwise pertain to a determination within the jurisdiction of CBP, the Officer must seek advice from the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel before conducting a search of the material, and this consultation shall be noted in appropriate CBP systems of records. CBP counsel will coordinate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as appropriate.

Other possibly sensitive information, such as medical records and work-related information carried by journalists, shall be handled in accordance with any applicable federal law and CBP policy.

Officers encountering business or commercial information in electronic devices shall treat such information as business confidential information and shall protect that information from unauthorized disclosure. Depending on the nature of the information presented, the Trade Secrets Act, the Privacy Act, and other laws, as well as CBP policies, may govern or restrict the handling of the information. Any questions regarding the handling of business or commercial information may be directed to the CBP Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel.

Information that is determined to be protected by law as privileged or sensitive will only be shared with federal agencies that have mechanisms in place to protect appropriately such information.

The CBP guidance also notes that an officer at the border may “detain” electronic devices or copies of information contained in them for “a reasonable period of time to perform a thorough border search,” which may take place either on-site or at another location. The guidance states that unless extenuating circumstances exist, the detention of such devices ordinarily should not exceed five days and should be completed “as expeditiously as possible.” Supervisory approval is required for detaining electronic devices, or copies of information contained in them, for continuation of a border search after an individual’s departure. Port Director, Patrol Agent in Charge, or other equivalent level manager approval is required to extend any such detention beyond five days.

The DHS notice and CBP guidance (link)

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