The American right to invade privacy?

A disappointing feature of the Obama administration is its continuing support of the Bush administration’s assertion of the federal government’s unfettered right to snoop.

Last July, the Department of Homeland Security decreed that federal agents — customs, immigration, border patrol — could hold and search travelers’ documents and electronic devices without a warrant or even a suspicion that something might be amiss.

This power is particularly sensitive with regard to the now omnipresent laptops that can contain immense volumes of personal information — private e-mails, financial records, medical records, diaries, photos, addresses, proprietary business data, drafts of reports and articles.

The Obama administration has modestly tightened the procedures under which electronic devices can be seized and searched. The new guidelines call for more supervisory oversight, a requirement that agency lawyers be consulted before certain kinds of personal information are examined and time limits on how long an agency can hold onto a device.

The guidelines also impose time limits on how long the government can hold onto information it has copied but it doesn’t require the government to inform the traveler that the information has been copied in the first place.

Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano defended the policy this way: "Keeping Americans safe in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully screen materials entering the United States."

And it’s not as if this is pervasive intrusion. Homeland Security says that between Oct. 1, 2008 and Aug. 11 of this year, customs and border officials searched about 1,000 laptops, 46 of them "in-depth." Still, the power to seize and search a laptop for any reason or no reason seems like a clear invitation to abuse.