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Profile: Marcia Hofmann
Marcia Hofmann was a participant or observer in the following events:
Two civil liberties organizations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), file a joint lawsuit against the US Department of Homeland Security. The two organizations file under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and demand that DHS make available its records on the questioning and searches of lawful travelers through US borders. The suit follows a large number of complaints by US citizens, immigrants, and visitors who have spoken out about what they term excessive and repeated screenings by US Customs and Border Protection agents (see 2007). ALC’s Shirin Sinnar says, “When the government searches your books, peers into your computer, and demands to know your political views, it sends the message that free expression and privacy disappear at our nation’s doorstep. The fact that so many people face these searches and questioning every time they return to the United States, not knowing why and unable to clear their names, violates basic notions of fairness and due process.” EFF’s Marcia Hofmann agrees, saying, “The public has the right to know what the government’s standards are for border searches. Laptops, phones, and other gadgets include vast amounts of personal information. When will agents read your email? When do they copy data, where is it stored, and for how long? How will this information follow you throughout your life? The secrecy surrounding border search policies means that DHS has no accountability to America’s travelers.” [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2/7/2008; Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2/7/2008] The lawsuit demands the public release of DHS’s policies on border searches and interrogations. It also demands an explanation as to how far government agents can go in questioning and searching citizens who are not suspected of any crime. The question of whether federal agents have the right to search electronic devices at all without suspicion of a crime is already under review in the federal courts.
Racial or Religious Profiling? - Almost all of the complaints come from travelers of Muslim, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent. Many of the complainants believe they were targeted because of racial or religious profiling. US Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Lynn Hollinger denies the charge. It is not her agency’s “intent to subject travelers to unwarranted scrutiny,” she says, and adds that a laptop may be seized if it contains information possibly tied to terrorism, narcotics smuggling, child pornography or other criminal activity. However, a Customs officers training guide says that “it is permissible and indeed advisable to consider an individual’s connections to countries that are associated with significant terrorist activity.” Law professor David Cole asks, “What’s the difference between that and targeting people because they are Arab or Muslim?” [Washington Post, 2/7/2008]
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