Homeland Security hit with lawsuit over phone, laptop searches

Isaac Cain
September 14, 2017

The number of electronic device searches at the border began increasing in 2016 and has grown even more under the Trump administration.

"The Fourth Amendment requires that the government get a warrant before it can search the contents of smartphones and laptops at the border", Bhandari added.

The advocacy organizations announced Wednesday that they have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on behalf of 11 travelers - 10 us citizens and one permanent resident of the United States - who had their smartphones and laptops searched without warrants.

If the feds want to keep searching people's digital devices at airports and border crossings, they'd better start getting warrants, the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation say.

One of them, Suhaib Allababidi, 40, is a naturalized US citizen born in Kuwait who owns a security business in suburban Dallas. Several are Muslim; others are people of color.

That ruling grew from the long-running contention by civil rights groups that modern digital devices carry such massive amounts of data - and such sensitive records including photographs, location data, e-mail communications, videos and Web browsing histories - that they should be afforded full Fourth Amendment protections against searches and seizures without warrants.

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"The government can not use the border as a dragnet to search through our private data", said ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari in a statement. Officers also confiscated and kept the devices of several plaintiffs for weeks or months - DHS has held one plaintiff's device since January. "I anxious that border officers would read my email messages and texts, and look at my photos", she said in a statement. A border agent led her to a back room where she was instructed to unlock her phone and computer. Messages to the press offices of the other agencies weren't immediately returned.

DHS officials have asserted that USA citizens and everyone else are subject to examination and search by customs officials, unless exempted by diplomatic status.

The Trump administration violated the US constitution by searching phones and laptops of American travelers at the border without a search warrant, a lawsuit filed Wednesday alleged, APA reports quoting Anadolu Agency. If the ACLU's projection of 30,000 searches proves right, that will be an increase of nearly 253% over two years.

In this new lawsuit, the ACLU and EFF have provided examples of the impact the border search approach has had on law-abiding Americans. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officer demanded that he reveal the password for his phone.

"That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon", the Supreme Court said in the ruling. This implies that agents can search texts but not, for example, your social media profiles (for US citizens, anyway). In March, Joseph Maher, Homeland Security's acting general counsel, wrote an op-ed in USA Today that no court has ruled against the agency's use of warrantless searches of electronic devices at the border. From last October to the end of March, they affected fewer than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the 189.6 million worldwide travelers who arrived in the United States. The plaintiffs include an artist, two journalists, a limousine driver, two students, a filmmaker, a college professor, a business owner, a computer programmer and an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in MA, argues that the seizures violate the First and Fourth Amendments.

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