U.S. Government Returns Laptop Confiscated Without Warrant from MIT Researcher after Seven Weeks

Border agents should not confiscate electronics of innocent Americans without suspicion of wrongdoing, says ACLU.

December 23, 2010

Chris Ott, ACLU of Massachusetts, (617) 482-3170 x322, cott@aclum.org

BOSTON -- Seven weeks after confiscating the laptop and other electronic devices of an MIT researcher without any reason to believe he was involved in wrongdoing, the U.S. government late Wednesday returned the belongings without explanation. The move came one day after the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts sent a letter on behalf of David House to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement demanding the return of Mr. House's property.

When Mr. House, a computer programmer and U.S. citizen who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, returned to the U.S. from a vacation in Mexico in early November, DHS detained and questioned Mr. House and confiscated his laptop computer, camera, and a USB drive as he entered the country at O'Hare airport.

The letter alleged that DHS singled out Mr. House and stopped him at the border on the basis of his association with the Bradley Manning Support Network, an organization created to raise funds and support for the legal defense of Mr. Manning, who has been accused of the unauthorized disclosure of information to WikiLeaks. The government has given no explanation for Mr. House's detention and interrogation by DHS and the seizure of his computer.

"While customs and border agents certainly have the responsibility and authority to keep us safe, that does not include intrusive, warrantless searches of our electronic devices without reason to believe we've done anything wrong," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. "Allowing government officials to look through Americans' most personal materials--the things we store on our laptops, cameras and cell phones--without reasonable suspicion is unconstitutional, inconsistent with American values, and a waste of limited resources."

"We are pleased that the government backed down and made this return so quickly after our demand," said Carol Rose, ACLU of Massachusetts executive director. "However, it shouldn't take seven weeks and an ACLU demand letter for travelers to get back property that the government has seized unconstitutionally. We want to know why this happened, and whether or not government agents tampered with Mr. House's property.

"Given the fact that almost everyone carries a cell phone or laptop when traveling, storing information they might not want to share with government officials--such as financial records, contact lists, years of personal correspondence, family photos, or proprietary employer data--we also want assurances that this kind of fishing expedition will not happen to other travelers," Rose said.

The U.S. government has made similar seizures in recent months. The government has still not returned the property of Jacob Appelbaum, a programmer who had his laptop and cellphones seized at the border without a warrant in July. In September, the ACLU and New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of the National Press Photographers Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old dual U.S.-French citizen who had his laptop searched and confiscated at the Canadian border while traveling home to New York on an Amtrak train in May 2010. The lawsuit challenges the DHS policy of searching, copying, and detaining travelers' laptops, cell phones, and other electronic devices at the border, even when DHS has no reason to believe a search would reveal wrongdoing.