Four years ago, Agnieszka Gaczkowska, a 29-year-old doctor and entrepreneur from Poland, was travelling through Detroit's airport on her way to Boston when her bag was selected for random inspection. The inspection officer asked her if she had any documents with her. Exhausted after a long journey, she replied that she did not, forgetting that she had put a few outstanding bills in one of her textbooks.
Suddenly, she found herself in serious trouble. The inspection officer found the bills and accused her of "lying to a federal officer." They held her for two hours as she was interrogated about the details of her life. The officer ordered her to turn her phone on, and then proceeded to read her e-mails, texts, and Facebook messages without her permission. She was shocked. Eventually, Gaczkowska was released, but she wondered if this was a common practice.
As it turns out, it is -- thousands of people every year face a similar situation. Our government agencies have allowed themselves the right to search and seize your electronic devices with stunning impunity.
Just a few weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security quietly released a strangely worded document reaffirming their own right to search and seize your electronics without suspicion or cause, anywhere along the United States border (which they define as 100 miles in from the border -- an area twice as long as Rhode Island). In reality, this is nothing new, Homeland Security been doing this since at least 2009 -- that's when Secretary Napolitano put her stamp on the Bush-era practice, and promised an impact assessment within 120 days. Over two years later, it's finally here, and it is nothing more than a poorly written press release.
Having a government official force their way into your laptop is fundamentally different from having them inspect your suitcase. Our hard drives contain personal correspondence, intimate details, deep logs of our activities, and sensitive financial or medical information. Yet we still give this less legal privacy protection than a sealed envelope with a stamp on it.
For now, the business community has figured out a way around having the government search and confiscate devices with company secrets -- give their employees blank laptops, and put the important information in the cloud. This subject is much bigger than how Homeland Security does its job. There is a deeper issue here that is not going away any time soon: our electronics, and the data they hold, have become extensions of who we are.
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution already provides us with protection against unreasonable search and seizures for people in their "persons, houses, papers, and effects" -- is it time that we add "data" to this list?
The way in which we go about answering this question will have enormous ramifications for our entire legal system. Courts around the country are struggling to decide how to balance security with privacy. From school to the workplace, this question is popping up in different ways almost every day.
In the meantime, the government has accelerated their pursuit of our digital breadcrumbs. In 2011, mobile companies received a staggering 1.3 million law enforcement requests for data, including text messages and location information. It has been over 25 years since Ronald Reagan signed sweeping digital privacy protections into law. In today's world of cloud computing and ubiquitous screens, these protections are horribly inadequate. We should not have to continue to rely on protections passed in an age where the Internet was a military project and the personal computer was just becoming a common thing.
Eventually, the Supreme Court will have to step in to settle the issue, and they are not exactly known for their technological expertise. It might not be long before we are asked at the airport whether we packed our own devices, if we were asked to bring anyone else's files, and if we know if anyone has placed any data on our devices without our knowledge. At least then, it might seem polite; for now, they don't even have to bother with the questions.