Can You Frisk a Hard Drive?
… where concerns have developed about invasions of privacy, for the most complete records on the travelers may be the ones they are carrying: their laptop computers full of professional and personal e-mail messages, photographs, diaries, legal documents, tax returns, browsing histories and other windows into their lives far beyond anything that could be, or would be, stuffed into a suitcase for a trip abroad. Those revealing digital portraits can be immensely useful to inspectors, who now hunt for criminal activity and security threats by searching and copying people’s hard drives, cellphones and other electronic devices, which are sometimes held for weeks of analysis.
If you stand with the Customs and Border Protection officers who staff the passport booths at Dulles airport near the nation’s capital, their task seems daunting. As a huge crowd of weary travelers shuffle along in serpentine lines, inspectors make quick decisions by asking a few questions (often across language barriers) and watching computer displays that don’t go much beyond name, date of birth and codes for a previous customs problem or an outstanding arrest warrant.
The officers are supposed to pick out the possible smugglers, terrorists or child pornographers and send them to secondary screening.
The chosen few — 6.1 million of the 293 million who entered the United States in the year ending Sept. 30, 2010 — get a big letter written on their declaration forms: A for an agriculture check on foodstuffs, B for an immigration issue, and C for a luggage inspection. Into the computer the passport officers type the reasons for the selection, a heads-up to their colleagues in the back room, where more thorough databases are accessible.