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Another Blow to Privacy Rights in the U.S.

A ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dealt yet another blow to privacy rights in this U.S. The ruling upheld giving the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service the right to search portable computers and other types of electronic devices at U.S. borders without sufficient grounds or reasonable suspicion. The appeal concerned a court ruling in which a person was arrested and charged with child pornography following a search without a warrant of his laptop by Los Angeles International Airport customs staff. The decision in the original trial was that the evidence was gained through unreasonable search and was thus inadmissible. This decision was subsequently overturned.

The ruling in this case has put yet another nail in the coffin of privacy rights in the U.S. Most of the erosion of these rights has occurred in the name of fighting terrorism. The U.S. government has, for example, freely exercised the right to snoop on telephone conversations without court authorization, to obtain personal email and usage records from service providers, obtain information about individuals from banks and places of employment, and now to capriciously and arbitrarily seize personally owned computers and hold any evidence of a crime found therein against the owner. The US Bill of Rights affords protection against unreasonable search and seizure, something that the American colonists were constantly subjected to at the hands of the British before the colonists declared independence.

Please do not get me wrong—I am not saying that the U.S. government is as abusive as were the British in the Americas in the 1760s and 1770s. Or instead, perhaps I should say that U.S. citizens and residents do not constantly face the threat of unreasonable physical search and seizure. The problem is instead that the U.S. government can obtain just about any personal information about anyone within the U.S. at its whim and for all practical purposes does not have to justify its doing so. So why don’t more American citizens and residents complain? The main reason is due to the difference between persons being subjected to physical search and seizure and being subjected to electronic forms of search and seizure. Physical search and seizure is highly offensive to those who must undergo this form of violation of dignity, whereas most individuals live in blissful ignorance concerning how much information about them is in the hands of the government, how the government has obtained this information, and what the government is doing with this it.

Additionally, I am by no means defending individuals who use computers in child pornography activity. In fact, I am glad that one such person has at least recently been arrested. But the ends do not justify the means. The way that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service gained evidence against the defendant in my estimation violated long-established protections within the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The bottom line is that privacy rights in the U.S. have eroded considerably in the last decade. We should be outraged that courts are giving our government the right to act in the same manner as do totalitarian regimes. We need to come out of our apathetic state, analyze and question what is going on, take action by writing our Congressional representatives, and vote for election candidates who champion the protection of privacy in the U.S.

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