Homeland Security sued over warrantless phone, laptop searches at border

Homeland Security sued over warrantless phone, laptop searches at border
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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are suing the federal government over warrantless searches of phones and laptops at the U.S. border.

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

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

“Today’s electronic devices contain troves of data and personal information that can be used to assemble detailed, comprehensive pictures of their owners’ lives," the complaint filed Wednesday states.

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"Because government scrutiny of electronic devices is an unprecedented invasion of personal privacy and a threat to freedom of speech and association, searches of such devices absent a warrant supported by probable cause and without particularly describing the information to be searched are unconstitutional.”

The plaintiffs were coming back into the country from business or personal trips when their devices were searched by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers. According to the advocacy organizations, officers confiscated their devices and held several of their devices for long periods of time. One of the individuals said that he was physically restrained by border officers while being questioned. 

None of the individuals has subsequently been accused of wrongdoing. 

The issue of warrantless phone searches by DHS has sparked criticism from privacy-minded lawmakers on Capitol Hill and digital rights advocates. Earlier this year, Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Finance to hold hearing on ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (D-Ore.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Lawmakers grapple with warrantless wiretapping program MORE (R-Ky.) introduced legislation that would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before searching digital devices of Americans trying to reenter the U.S. 

“The government cannot use the border as a dragnet to search through our private data,” ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari said in a statement announcing the suit. “Our electronic devices contain massive amounts of information that can paint a detailed picture of our personal lives, including emails, texts, contact lists, photos, work documents, and medical or financial records.

“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. 

An NBC News investigation published in March turned up 25 instances in which American citizens said border agents demanded their phones and passwords at airports and border crossings. Cellphone seizures by border officers are said to have spiked significantly in recent years, at the end of the Obama administration and beginning of the Trump administration. 

The plaintiffs in the case announced by the ACLU and EFF on Wednesday include an Air Force veteran, a NASA engineer and a Harvard University graduate student, among others.