WASHINGTON (AFP) — Since 2007, in a "quiet" reversal of a two-decades-old policy, US customs officials have been able to read and copy personal documents of people -- including US citizens -- not suspected of wrongdoing that enter the United States, two civil rights organizations said Tuesday.
Documents detailing the policy changes were obtained from the Department of Homeland Security under the Freedom of Information Act by the Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Restrictions on the examination of travelers' documents and papers have been in place since 1986, after a group of US citizens challenged unwarranted searches and interrogations as a violation of their First Amendment rights.
Up to 2007 Customs officials could read travelers documents only if they had "reasonable suspicion" that the documents would reveal violations.
Under the changes officials are empowered to read and copy documents -- including books, photos, handwritten notes, computer files, and information from cell phones and other electronic devices -- belonging to travelers not suspected of any wrongdoing and keep them for a "reasonable period of time" to conduct further searches.
The ALC said in a statement it has received "over 25 complaints since 2007 from US travelers, mostly of Muslim, South Asian or Middle Eastern origin who said they were grilled about their families, religious practices (...) political beliefs or associations when returning to the United States from travels abroad."
The government documents they obtained show that in 2007, Customs and Border Protection "loosened restrictions on the examination of travelers' documents and papers that had existed since 1986," the ALC said.
The two rights groups noted that the Department of Homeland Security announced the portions of the new policy in July 2008, but the changes had been applied since 2007.
"Now customs officials can probe into the thoughts and lives of ordinary travelers without any suspicion at all," said ALC lawyer Shirin Sinnar.
"Your laptop computer likely contains a massive amount of private information such as personal e-mails, financial data or confidential business records," said EFF lawyer Marcia Hofmann.
"The Department of Homeland Security has given its agents increasingly broad authority to search, copy, and store that information. Congress needs to step in now to stop these invasive practices and protect travelers," said Hofmann.
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