Sunday, July 31, 2011

Feds Defend Seizure of WikiLeaks Supporter's Laptop

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Feds Defend Seizure of WikiLeaks Supporter’s Laptop

The Justice Department on Thursday fired back against a lawsuit filed by a WikiLeaks supporter and friend of accused leaker Bradley Manning over the warrantless seizure of his laptop, arguing that they held onto the machine for a lengthy 49 days only because he refused to provide the password, and because his dual-boot Linux/Windows configuration taxed federal agents’ forensics capabilities.

David Maurice House is one of several Boston-area friends of Manning who were interviewed by federal agents following Manning’s May 2010 arrest. House is also a founding member of the Bradley Manning Support Network, where he sits on the steering committee and does fundraising. He was a frequent visitor of the imprisoned Army private until early March.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Massachusetts, concerns a November 2010 incident in which House was met by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents as he deplaned at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport after a vacation in Mexico. The agents searched House’s bags, then took him to a detention room and questioned him “for an extended period,” according to the lawsuit.

When House was released, the agents confiscated his laptop computer, a thumb drive and a digital camera. ICE held onto to equipment for 49 days, finally returning it only when the ACLU sent them a strongly worded letter on House’s behalf.

But in court filings (.pdf) Thursday, the government said House was interviewed for only “about 20 minutes.” The Justice Department conceded that it held onto House’s laptop for longer than the 30 days normally allowed under border-search regulations, but said they retained it for no longer than necessary to complete a forensics analysis and copy the hard drive.

“The lack of password access required ICE computer experts to spend additional time on Mr. House’s laptop,” the government wrote (.pdf), adding that agents also required additional time because House’s laptop was running both Linux and Windows, while the agency is accustomed to searching vanilla Windows or Macintosh machines. Additionally, there are only 220 ICE agents certified in computer forensics, handling cases from 7,000 agents nationwide, slowing the pipeline.

Under the “border search exception” of United States criminal law, international travelers can be searched without a warrant as they enter the U.S. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, law enforcement agents have aggressively used this power to search travelers’ laptops, sometimes copying the hard drive before returning the computer to its owner. Courts have ruled that such laptop searches can take place even in the absence of any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

In House’s case, the ACLU says the warrantless seizure and search of House’s data is particularly troubling. House, the ACLU claims, was targeted solely for his work with the Bradley Manning Support Network, and the seizure infringed House’s constitutional rights of speech and association.

The government disputed that as well.

[T]he Government is not prohibited from examining any items at the border simply because they may be related to the work of an organization,” the Justice Department wrote, “nor are there any factual allegations showing how Plaintiff’s organization has been targeted by the government, or that the routine search of Plaintiff’s electronic devices disclosure may impede the future activities of the organization.”

The government added that at this point it’s keeping House’s hard drive data only “for purposes of litigation.”

Top image: YouTube

Kevin Poulsen is a senior editor at, editor of the award-winning Threat Level blog, and author of Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground (Crown, 2011).
Follow @kpoulsen on Twitter. © 2010 Cond√© Nast Digital. All rights reserved.

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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