No warrant, no problem: US gov't uses travel alerts for warrantless electronics search

No warrant, no problem: US gov't uses travel alerts for warrantless electronics search

Summary: The ACLU has released documents showing how the US government uses border searches to take citizens' electronics and rifle through private data to its heart's content.


The ACLU has published documents showing the US government has been using "travel alerts" to nonconsensually take and search civilians' electronic devices since st least 2010.

This form of search and seizure - and data copying - occurs even if the individual is not the subject of any investigation.


The US government does not need suspicion or a warrant to search people’s electronic devices at the border.

The ACLU docs reveal that the US government places travel alerts on people whose data they'd like to look at - without a warrant or formal investigation - and nabs computers, phones, or anything else it wants to search. 

The documents published by the ACLU are from its lawsuit on behalf of David House (a legal defense fundraiser for Chelsea Manning).

Mr. House had his devices held, copied and his data was hacked and searched for six months - when coming back to the US from a vacation in November 2010.

ACLU writes,

The settlement documents reveal that an agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) - an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) subdivision that is now the second largest law enforcement agency in the United States - entered a “lookout” into a government database called TECS (see the document here), effectively notifying government agents throughout the country that House was wanted for questioning in connection with the Department of Justice’s investigation into Manning and WikiLeaks. 

A travel alert, and the border guards take your data for various US government deaprtments to search.

It's as simple as that.

The ACLU maintains that, "the settlement documents demonstrate that the seizure of House’s computer was unrelated to border security or customs enforcement. It was simply an opportunity to conduct a suspicionless search that no court would ever have approved inside the country."

This process has been secret until now.

It is reminiscent of what happened to the husband of reporter Glenn Greenwald recebtly in the UK, when David Miranda was detained, interrogated and his electronic devices were kept.

The UK used an anti-terrorism law to seize Mr. Miranda's electronics in what is being widely regarded as an abuse of the UK laws, and to engage in what is regarded as state-sponsored hacking and search.

In some countries, modifying confiscated devices in any way is either illegal or requires suspicion of serious crime.

In the UK hacking of random suspects and inserting malware on their computers became routine protocol as early as 2011.

The ACLU now shows us that the US has been practicing legally hazy confiscation and intrusion on citizens since as early as 2010.

Lawful interception? Not so fast.

The ACLU Blog posts the documents, a result of its lawsuit on behalf of Mr. House, and analyzes the situation.

House was stopped at Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport coming back from vacation in November 2010.

(...) DHS agents detained House, interrogated him about his political activities and beliefs, and then seized his laptop computer, mobile phone, camera, and USB drive. The agents returned House’s phone after inspecting it, but the government kept the rest of his devices for seven weeks while agents searched his files for evidence.

Even after the government returned House’s physical devices, it continued to actively investigate copies of his files for nearly six more months.

The ACLU releases their lawsuit's documents - including the chain of custody paper - to show what it believes to be a similar abuse of search and seizure laws in the United States.

ACLU also draws a direct line between the Miranda case and what DHS/ICE have done to an estimated 4,957 Americans who have had their electronic devices searched between October 1, 2012 and August 31, 2013,  "and an additional 4,898 individuals were subject to electronic device searches the previous year."

Like Mr. Miranda, Mr. House was not charged with any crime.

Mr. House today told the New York Times,

Americans crossing the border are being searched and their digital media is being seized in the hopes that the government will find something to have them convicted.

I think it’s important for business travelers and people who consider themselves politically inclined to know what dangers they now face in a country where they have no real guarantee of privacy at the border.

Finland-based F-Secure Senior Researcher Jarno Niemelä told ZDnet that when electronics are confiscated, authorities can hack your passwords or file encryption and basically do:


Phone calls, call records, SMS messages and SMS records, email messages, physical location, ability to use device as a listening bug, websites visited (and visit duration), screenshots of user activity, all windows interacted with, all internet connections made, all app usage (and use duration), all files used and deleted, all documents opened, all chatroom conversations, all computer usage sessions, etc.

German researcher Felix "FX" Lindner explained in more direct terms,

However, just imagine I get your phone and computer and put every data point I can find in Maltego.

The secondary and following layers reveal everything, especially if the authority doing it also has the power to go to the central service providers you use (Facebook, Twitter, Google).

The ACLU thinks that crossing a border shouldn't be a loophole by which a US government department can rifle through what's become the repositories for the most intimate and private areas of our lives.

It added,

A federal appeals court recently said that the forensic examination of a person’s laptop is so “comprehensive and intrusive” that the government should not be allowed to search such devices at the border without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

But I think that what the ACLU documents show is that we've got a system that's been exploited several steps too far - and suspicion of wrongdoing has fallen victim to "eye of the beholder" syndrome.

Topics: Security, Government US

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  • You still don't have a clue to how invasive they are!

    The law doesn't matter to the law.
    • Sadly this is less flippant than it seems..

      Disregarding for a moment the credibility (or lack thereof) of the ZD "has my cheque cleared yet" subcontractor who posted this, there's a valid point here.
      Flawless Cowboy
      • As long as it is on the other side....

        of the border, i.e. Canada or Mexico; I would agree that Constitutional rights could arguably end at that demarcation. However, I still feel inside the U.S. - they got problems convincing me of such things. Foreigners, not so much. Seems to me if you are not a U.S. citizen, and even if you have a valid passport from another country, I can see where they arguably may not have as many rights as a U.S. citizen. I can also see where the argument that we ALL are born with inalienable rights has argument - but I'm assuming U.S. Supreme Court precedence doesn't follow that logic.
        • @JCitizen, re:As long as it is on the other side....

          So, what are you saying there? That people in the US are worth more than other countries? Other countries are not as important and therefore the US does not have to respect people who live there? I am wondering, when people visit your house, do you command them to sit on the floor; perhaps guests are not allowed to use the washroom, or have to eat food without utensils...

          Though, don't worry, most people find no interest or reason for visiting your country. It is fast becoming one most threatening and rudest places to go to. Pretty soon perhaps the border agents will have to set up fences to stop people sneaking out, rather than in. :P
          Kieron Seymour-Howell
  • Every authority

    Every authority granted to any US policing agency is abused before the end of the first day the law goes into effect.

    We as a people must remove the protection granted to officers and hold them accountable for their actions, that is, allow them to be sued into oblivion when they ignore the US Constitution and citizen's rights.
    • Utopia is a nice thought, but..

      I think the keyword here is 'people', and when the people generally consist of clueless dimwits, well, I weep for the remainder who are going to be categorised among them through sheer weight of numbers :(
      Flawless Cowboy
  • Violet, not just at the border

    The US has a law that lets the various police agencies set up "check points" ANYWHERE with-in 100 miles of ANY border. That effectively covers about 70% of the US population when they include the costal areas.

    They will take your electronics and search you, your car and passengers in a heart beat, no reason required.
    • Videos on YouTube to prove it.

      There are at least several videos on YouTube of people who have recorded these stops. It's infuriating to see the degree of abuse by these federal employees.
  • To be fair;

    It is no not only the US government that is doing this. The world today, has everyone seen as a suspected unknown criminal. The new policies seem to have decided that everyone is up to something, and it is more of a job to just find out what it is. So much for being innocent until proven guilty. No, now it is we know you are doing something or other, and we intend to find out what. This is leading to the authority simply making wild assumptions and inventing crimes and then it is your word against theirs. You do not even have to have done anything wrong now, they already assume you have done something, so everything you do is assumed to be part of that unknown crime.
    Kieron Seymour-Howell
  • Why not try to find a traitors connections?

    Millions of people cross the US borders and roughly 5,000 people have had their electronics seized. I would think that because this is such a small number compared to how many people travel, that when it occurs, there is a unique reason why the information is needed. In this particular case, it is to track who may be sources that now have US Top Secret Classified documents.
    I am surprised though that the government is portrayed as the bad guy in this article when it is the government who is the victim, and our national security which is at risk by the dissemination of the information stolen.
    • They are just starting with these new systems.

      Much of this activity is testing at the moment. They are not sure what the cost versus the value is of doing this work. So, for a few years, they will undergo a efficiency testing procedure to see what value, of any, the effort returns. If they find that blanket screening of random people provides enough evidence of crimes or if the work load is too expensive to continue.

      I think, that eventually complex computer systems and AI will be the ones doing the bulk of the screening and then only people flagged as having a certain interest level will be forwarded to the actual boots on the ground. Otherwise the work will become boring, and expensive and tedious. If the people doing the work, are not rewarded enough of the time with results, human psychology profiles dictate that they will become lethargic and apathetic and less likely to ferret out substantial results. So, the only real way this system can pay off is to automate as much of the grunt work as possible.
      Kieron Seymour-Howell
    • Fairly simple

      Everybody likes to blame 'the man' or similar, because it's a faceless and anonymous entity. If we did anything else it might eventually lead to vague voter identification of sorts, and soon after we might even be indirectly identifying the incompetants who live among us and voted for fringe dweller parties etc, and generally implying that nasty 'personal responsibility' stuff that's so unfashionable now. This just won't do.
      Flawless Cowboy
      • @Flawless Cowboy, re: Fairly simple

        Who is to say this is not coming, or already in the works?
        Kieron Seymour-Howell
    • Are you for real?

      This is a very disgusting act of violating personal privacy. It's an abuse of power.
    • Government the victim???

      This is rediculous. The law enforcement bodies go outside boundaries of the law, or at least bend the rules to do all kind of illegal things.

      It is already for years (> 10 years) that I feel real unwelcome when traveling to the US. When entering the US at O'hare the official at the border are real nasty to foreigners (I'm from the Netherlands) and make you feel really unwelcome.

      The vast majority of foreigners entering the US have nothing bad in mind. They either come for business of vacation. Why Adopt the 'standard behavior' to the minority of visitors?
  • I'd be totally scr#$#d

    In order to protect my companies data all of our laptops are completely encrypted. This to prevent customer data to fall into the hands of criminals in case the laptop gets stolen (or lost God forbid).
    Think how it would look to a NSA (or any other agency) agent to run into this encryption. I'd be a suspect immediately although I did nothing wrong.
    • none of their business

      It's none of the government's business if you encrypt your files. It's not a crime to do that. You can be sure the NSA encrypts all their files too. Hopefully you are using an open source encryption system and not one of the brand new one as they are in cahoots with government and they dumb down the encryption to make it easy for the government to use brute force to decrypt your files.