Laptop searches at airports infrequent, DHS privacy report says

Social media, airport image-screening technology also examined in annual report to Congress

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's annual privacy report card revealed more details on the agency's controversial policy involving searches of electronic devices at U.S. borders.

The 99-page report, which was released Thursday, also offered details on the agency's efforts to address privacy risks in social media and the use of imaging technologies that produce whole-body scans at airport security checkpoints.

The report is the first DHS privacy assessment released to Congress since the new administration took office. It covers the activities of the DHS Privacy Office between July 2008 and June 2009.

For the most part, the report is a compilation of privacy-related activities across the DHS during this period. However, it also includes lesser-known details about some DHS programs. For instance, numbers released in the report indicate that warrantless searches of electronic devices at U.S. borders are occurring less frequently than some privacy and civil rights advocates might have feared.

Of the more than 144 million travelers who arrived at U.S. ports of entry between Oct. 1, 2008, and May 5, 2009, searches of electronic media were conducted on 1,947 of them, the DHS said.

Of this number, 696 searches were performed on laptop computers, the DHS said. Even in those cases, not all of the laptops received an "in-depth" search, the report states. A search sometimes may have been as simple as turning on a device to ensure that it was what it purported to be. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents conducted "in-depth" searches on 40 laptops, but the report did not describe what such a search entailed.

The numbers add new perspective to the issue of border searches of electronic devices. While the DHS has insisted on the need to perform such searches, privacy and civil rights groups maintain that those searches are intrusive and violate an individual's constitutional right against unreasonable searches.

Social networking tools get close look

The report also noted the "myriad of complex legal, security and privacy issues" raised by the use of social networking tools in the federal government. As part of an effort to address such issues, the DHS Office of Policy and the Office of Public Affairs have established a Social Media Roundtable Working Group with representatives from offices throughout the department, the report said.

The privacy office is also implementing a compliance process to ensure that the department's use of social media tools complies with all privacy laws, including the Privacy Act and the Homeland Security Act. The DHS privacy office is asking all of the department's constituent units to conduct so-called privacy threshold analyses to identify the uses of social media within the DHS and their impact on privacy.

The report also noted the "heightened public interest" around the Transportation Security Administration's use of imaging technologies to search for items that passengers might be hiding beneath their clothing. The report said the TSA has taken steps to mitigate the privacy impact of the technology, for example, by having the person viewing the scans in a remote location and by placing a blur over the facial image. TSA is also working with technology providers to further anonymize images by converting them to an abstract image, such as a cartoon, the report said.

The report chronicled similar efforts to monitor the privacy implications of a range of projects that privacy groups are also monitoring. Examples include Einstein 2.0 network monitoring technology that improves the ability of federal agencies to detect and respond to threats, and the Real ID identity credentialing program. The DHS's terror watch list program, its numerous data mining projects and the secure flight initiative were also mentioned in the report.

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