The U.S. government has quietly recast policies that affect the way information is gathered from U.S. citizens and others crossing the border and what is done with it, including relaxing a two-decade-old policy that placed a high bar on federal agents copying travelers' personal material, according to newly released documents.
The policy changes, civil liberties advocates say, also raise concerns about the guidelines under which border officers may share data copied from laptops and cell phones with other agencies and the types of questions they are allowed to ask U.S. citizens.
In July, the Department of Homeland Security disclosed policies that showed that federal agents may copy books, documents, and the data on electronic devices without suspecting a traveler of wrongdoing.
But what the department did not disclose was that since 1986 and until last year, the government generally required a higher standard: Federal agents needed probable cause that a law was being broken before they could copy material a traveler was bringing into the country.
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“For 20 years the government has at least implicitly recognized there were some First Amendment restrictions on reading and copying documents,” said Shirin Sinnar, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, which along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the government under the Freedom of Information Act for disclosure of border search policies.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the changes reflect “the realities of the post-9/11 environment, the agency's expanded mission and legal authorities, and developments in the law.”