Travellers to the United States are being warned that US agents now have the authority to seize and retain their laptops indefinitely, according to a new policy detailed in documents issued by the US Department of Homeland Security.
As part of border search policy, government agents are now authorised to seize electronic devices and inspect documents in them, the document states. The electronic devices might include laptops, cell phones, portable music players or storage devices such as portable hard drives.
Agents with US Customs and Border Protection will also be allowed to translate and share documents with other government agencies.
The DHS document, issued 16 July, appears to state publicly a policy that has already existed. Laptops and electronic devices have been subject to search in the past, and travelers have reported not getting their devices back. The policy has drawn strong criticism from lawmakers and nonprofit groups, who charged that the searches were invasive and a violation of an individual's privacy rights. Computers contain a vast amount of private information about family, finances and health, which could be easily copied and stored in government databases, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has complained.
The policy document states that being able to examine documents and electronic devices is crucial for "detecting information concerning terrorism, narcotics smuggling ... contraband including child pornography, and ... other import or export control laws."
The new DHS policies allow customs agents to analyse the contents of laptops without any suspicion of wrongdoing, US Senator Russ Feingold said in a statement.
"The policies that have been disclosed are truly alarming," Feingold wrote.
The policy could blur the distinction between "search" and "seizure," which could also allow DHS officials to steal personal documents from laptops it has retained, Feingold wrote.