Approved by the: Faculty Senate - February 5, 2009
Administration - March 26, 2009*
Board of Regents - no action required
*University Relations has sent the statement to the Minnesota Congressional Delegation.

Border Searches of Electronic Materials


To send the following to the Minnesota Congressional Delegation:

The Members of the Faculty Senate of the University of Minnesota write to express their grave concern at the change in Department of Home Security policy that enables Customs and Border Patrol Agents to seize and copy electronic and printed materials at will, without even "suspicion of illegal activity" ("probable cause"), by which their efforts were limited until July 2008. We believe that what today affects only border crossings, tomorrow could spread internally. This freely invasive practice is a threat to the integrity of the research of all scientists and other scholars who cross borders and, often, collaborate with scientists and scholars abroad. We urge you to do all you can to restore to Agents’ practice the entirely reasonable requirement of "suspicion of illegal activity" that previously obtained.


The Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure received the following information from the national office of the American Association of University Professors, and in response, recommends the motion for adoption by the Faculty Senate, to be forwarded to the members of the Minnesota Congressional delegation.

Subject: AAUP Legislative Alert: Border Searches of Electronic Materials

October 14, 2008

Over the past few months there has been a great deal of publicity surrounding the searches of electronic materials at the border. Until recently, Customs and Border Patrol agents could seize and copy electronic and printed materials if they had probable cause to believe that the law was being broken. In July 2008, the Department of Homeland Security revealed that its internal policies no longer require any suspicion of illegal activity to search and seize travelers’ materials. While privacy issues are everyone’s concern, and all citizens should actively defend their civil liberties, faculty members have particular areas of concern about this policy due to their research and collaboration with colleagues around the world. Below, we offer links to press coverage and a congressional hearing on the issue.

Please consider calling your representatives and senators to express your concerns about this issue.
Talking points are directly below.

Obtain the contact information for your elected officials, as well as some general pointers on grassroots advocacy by visiting the AAUP's online advocacy center.

You could also call or e-mail the offices of Senator Russ Feingold and Senator Patrick Leahy to thank them for convening a hearing on this vital issue and encourage them to continue their oversight work.

Talking Points

-- Professors commonly collaborate on research with colleagues in other countries. In places with restrictive governments, researchers and scholars may be taking risks to work on certain projects. Knowing that such collaboration will no longer be kept confidential may have a chilling effect on collaboration across borders.
-- Similarly, faculty working in areas such as human rights may have a much more difficult time making contacts or finding sources, if they cannot guarantee the anonymity of sources of information. This would greatly impede the amount and quality of information obtained about various political and socio-economic situations around the world, of which academics are a vital source.
-- There is little or no information about how information that is copied and kept by Homeland Security will be kept secure, leading to concerns about the protection of original research. This extends to projects that may have patents pending or are in an otherwise precarious stage of development.
-- It is unlikely that the Customs and Border Protection agents conducting such searches at the border would have the specialized knowledge to determine whether or not certain types of data, particularly in areas of science such as engineering or biochemistry, pose a genuine threat.
-- The invasion of privacy may extend well beyond the individual whose possessions are being searched. Many faculty members have outside practices or jobs. An adjunct at a school of law may have confidential client records. An instructor from a psychology department may have patient records. Thus, obligations of confidentiality may be breached through no fault of the professional’s own under these searches.

Press coverage of this issue:

"Expanded Powers to Search Travelers at Border Detailed" Washington Post, 9/23/08

"Search and Replace" [editorial], Washington Post, 8/13/08

"US Border Agency Says It Can Seize Laptops" PC World, 8/3/08

"Travelers' Laptops May Be Detained At Border: No Suspicion Required Under DHS Policies" Washington Post, 8/1/08

Congressional Hearing: Senate Judiciary Committee, "Laptop Searches and Other Violations of Privacy Faced by Americans Returning from Overseas Travel"

Cary Nelson, AAUP president
Nicole Byrd, AAUP government relations associate

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