By Adam Liptak
The New York Times
January 7, 2008
A couple of years ago, Michael T. Arnold landed at the Los Angeles
International Airport after a 20-hour flight from the Philippines. He
had his laptop with him, and a customs officer took a look at what was
on his hard drive. Clicking on folders called Kodak pictures and Kodak
memories, the officer found child pornography.
The search was not unusual: 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 computers hard drive, the government says, is no different
than looking through a suitcase.
One federal appeals court has agreed, and a second seems ready to follow
There is one lonely voice on the other side. In 2006, Judge Dean D.
Pregerson of Federal District Court in Los Angeles suppressed the
evidence against Mr. Arnold.
Electronic storage devices function as an extension of our own memory,
Judge 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 can include, Judge Pregerson continued, diaries,
letters, medical information, financial records, trade secrets,
attorney-client materials and the clincher, of course information about
reporters confidential sources and story leads.
But Judge Pregersons 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
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond,
Va., took that position in a 2005 decision. It upheld the conviction of
John W. Ickes Jr., who crossed the Canadian border with a computer
containing child pornography. A customs agents suspicions were raised,
the courts decision said, after discovering a video camera containing a
tape of a tennis match which focused excessively on a young ball boy.
It is true that the government should have great leeway in searching
physical objects at the border. But the law requires a little more a
reasonable suspicion when the search is especially invasive, as when the
human body is involved.
Searching a computer, said Jennifer M. Chacn, a law professor at the
University of California, Davis, is fairly intrusive. Like searches of
the body, she said, such an invasive search should require reasonable
An interesting supporting brief filed in the Arnold case by the
Association of Corporate Travel Executives and the Electronic Frontier
Foundation said there have to be some limits on the governments ability
to acquire information.
Under the governments reasoning, the brief said, border authorities
could systematically collect all of the information contained on every
laptop computer, BlackBerry and other electronic device carried across
our national borders by every traveler, American or foreign. That is,
the brief said, simply electronic surveillance after the fact.
The government went even further in the case of Sebastien Boucher, a
Canadian who lives in New Hampshire. Mr. Boucher crossed the Canadian
border by car about a year ago, and a customs agent noticed a laptop in
the back seat.
Asked whether he had child pornography on his laptop, Mr. Boucher said
he was not sure. He said he downloaded a lot of pornography but deleted
child pornography when he found it.
Some of the files on Mr. Bouchers computer were encrypted using a
program called Pretty Good Privacy, and Mr. Boucher helped the agent
look at them, apparently by entering an encryption code. The agent said
he saw lots of revolting pornography involving children.
The government seized the laptop. But when it tried to open the
encrypted files again, it could not. A grand jury instructed Mr. Boucher
to provide the password.
But a federal magistrate judge quashed that subpoena in November, saying
that requiring Mr. Boucher to provide it would violate his Fifth
Amendment right against self-incrimination. Last week, the government
The magistrate judge, Jerome J. Niedermeier of Federal District Court in
Burlington, Vt., used an analogy from Supreme Court precedent. It is one
thing to require a defendant to surrender a key to a safe and another to
make him reveal its combination.
The government can make you provide samples of your blood, handwriting
and the sound of your voice. It can make you put on a shirt or stand in
a lineup. But it cannot make you testify about facts or beliefs that may
incriminate you, Judge Niedermeier said.
The core value of the Fifth Amendment is that you cant be made to speak
in ways that indicate your guilt, Michael Froomkin, a law professor at
the University of Miami, wrote about the Boucher case on his
But Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at the George Washington University,
said Judge Niedermeier had probably gotten it wrong. In a normal case,
Professor Kerr said in an interview, there would be a privilege. But
given what Mr. Boucher had already done at the border, he said, making
him provide the password again would probably not violate the Fifth
There are all sorts of lessons in these cases. One is that the border
seems be a privacy-free zone. A second is that encryption programs work.
A third is that you should keep your password to yourself. And the most
important, as my wife keeps telling me, is that you should leave your
laptop at home.
Visit InfoSec News