The back-to-back revelations this week that the government has been working with internet and telecommunications companies to sweep up everyone’s phone records and also to tap into the servers of internet providers, has provided startling confirmation of long-held suspicions that we now have an out-of-control national security state that does not give a damn about the constitution or individual right but will use, under the guise of the bogus war on terror, any of the extremely powerful weapons at its disposal to achieve whatever it thinks it wants or needs. We have allowed the creation of a national security behemoth and that behemoth is turning on us, as such behemoths always do. Both political parties are complicit in this, as are members of congress, the judiciary, the military, and major corporations.
This should not be a major surprise. As I have said repeatedly, a government that asserts that it has the right to torture and summarily murder its own citizens (as the Obama administrations does) without needing to provide any of the reasons it claims it has for such actions is a government that has become rogue, thinking it has almost a divine right to exercise power without any checks.
In such a climate, adding more evidence to its abuse of its excessive power may seem redundant but still needs to be done.
Cyrus Farivar writes about the searches and seizure of laptops by DHS (Department of Homeland Security, a name that always strikes me as Orwellian) at the border for incoming travelers. David Kravets adds: “The Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights watchdog has concluded that travelers along the nation’s borders may have their electronics seized and the contents of those devices examined for any reason whatsoever — all in the name of national security.” [My italics-MS]
As is now routine, the government simply asserted that did not need to have probable cause (the usual justification for a search) and that its actions did not violate the rights of citizens. It said that even if its agents acted merely on hunches, these searches sometimes turn up useful information. The ACLU is not impressed with this reasoning.
To be sure, rummaging around through people’s personal papers may well turn up the occasional bad guy, but that is not the only consideration. No doubt law enforcement agents would also find it useful to walk into people’s homes at will, but we don’t allow them to do so because that would intrude on our reasonable expectation of privacy in our homes. And just as we reasonably expect privacy in our homes, so, too, do we expect that border agents will not base their decisions to search through our electronic information on a whim or a hunch. Put another way, requiring law enforcement agents to possess objective reasons for a search is a feature of our constitutional framework, not a bug.
Even at the border, the Fourth Amendment requires more than just hunches. It is disappointing that the DHS watchdog dedicated to protecting our privacy and other civil liberties does not recognize that.
It is true that courts have recognized people entering a country have less rights at the border than they do once inside. And since very few people travel outside the country, they may feel that they are not at risk of being randomly searched by the DHS and having their computers and other electronic devices seized.
They should think again.
It turns out that the government takes a very expansive view of what the ‘border’ is. As Jonathan Turley says, it turns out that it considers all parts of the country that are within a range of 100 miles of the territorial boundary to be the ‘border’. Here’s a map of what the government considers the ‘border’ but what the ACLU calls ‘The Constitution-Free Zone of the United States’. It encompasses 2/3 of the entire population of the country.
Since I live in Cleveland, I am considered to be living in the border region and could be stopped at any time by the DHS on my commute to work and have my computer seized.
I was not aware of this but apparently the DHS sets up checkpoints within the country and stops travelers for random searches. This video has a collection of vignettes to show people how to politely but firmly decline to be searched.
The people doing the stopping often seemed to have an inflated sense of their own power. It is a very dangerous thing when even minor officials feel that the government will back them whatever they do. It gives them the temptation to use excessive force. The people asserting their rights and refusing to comply struck me as very brave.
When watching this, I was struck by how similar the scenes were to those in films about other countries in other times where people were randomly stopped and asked to ‘show their papers’. Those scenes in the films were a cliché, to show the viewer what an abusive, authoritarian state looked like. And now they are the new normal in the US.