Newly released documents detail a process that enables the
government to detain a person, who may not be a suspect in an
investigation, and confiscate any electronic devices that person is
Newly released documents disclose how the U.S. government uses
border crossings to seize travelers' electronic devices instead of
obtaining search warrants to gain access to the data.
The documents detail what until now has been a largely secretive
process that enables the government to create a travel alert for a
person who may not be a suspect in an investigation, then detain
that individual at a border crossing and confiscate electronic
To critics, the documents show how the government can subvert
Americans' constitutional protections against unreasonable search
and seizure, but the confiscations have largely been allowed by
courts as a tool to battle illegal activities like drug smuggling.
The documents, part of a legal settlement with the Department of
Homeland Security, were turned over to David House, a fund-raiser
for the legal defense of Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Pfc.
Bradley Manning, who was sentenced by a military judge last month to
35 years in prison for providing more than 700,000 government files
to WikiLeaks. Mr. House sued the agency after his laptop, camera,
thumb drive and cellphone were seized when he returned from a trip
to Mexico in November 2010. The data from the devices was then
examined over seven months.
Although government investigators had questioned Mr. House about
his association with Private Manning in the months before his trip
to Mexico, he said no one had asked to search his computer or
mentioned seeking a warrant to do so. After seizing his devices, the
immigration authorities sent a copy of Mr. House's data to the U.S.
Army Criminal Investigation Command, which conducted the detailed
search of his files. No evidence of any crime was found, the
"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," Mr. House said. "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
A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the
agency declined to comment about the settlement with Mr. House or
answer questions about travelers' rights when devices are seized
during a border crossing.
While many travelers have no idea why they are singled out for a
more intrusive screening at a border, one of the documents released
in Mr. House's settlement shows that he was flagged for a device
search months before he traveled to Mexico.
On July 8, 2010, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
investigators in New York created an alert, known as a TECS lookout,
for Mr. House, noting that he was "wanted for questioning re leak of
classified material" and ordering border agents to "secure digital
media" if he appeared at an inspection point.
TECS is a computer system used to screen travelers at the border,
and includes records from law enforcement, immigration and anti-
terrorism databases. A report from the Department of Homeland
Security about border searches of electronic devices says a traveler
may be searched "because he is the subject of, or person-of-
interest-in, an ongoing law enforcement investigation and was
flagged by a law enforcement 'lookout"' in the Immigration and
Customs Enforcement computer system.
On Oct. 26, 2010, an automated message notified investigators
that Mr. House had an airline reservation on Oct. 30, traveling on
American Airlines Flight 865 from Dallas-Fort Worth to Los Cabos,
Mexico; a later query noted that he would be returning to Chicago
O'Hare on American Flight 228, landing at 6 p.m. on Nov. 3.
As airline passengers are required to provide carriers with their
birth dates and passport numbers before flights to or from the
United States, and airlines pass that information to Homeland
Security as part of the Advance Passenger Information System,
computers matched the lookout alert with Mr. …