ACLU files suit to stop cell­phone search at bor­der

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY STEPHEN DINAN The Wash­ing­ton Times (ISSN 0732-8494) is pub­lished Mon­day through Fri­day.

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union filed a law­suit in fed­eral court Wed­nes­day chal­leng­ing the govern­ment’s pol­icy per­mit­ting searches of trav­el­ers’ cell­phones as they en­ter the U.S., call­ing it a vi­o­la­tion of pri­vacy rights.

The ACLU filed on be­half of 11 peo­ple who had their elec­tronic de­vices searched with­out prob­a­ble cause. In four cases, the govern­ment kept the plain­tiffs’ phones for weeks or even months, the law­suit says.

The law­suit comes at a time when Home­land Se­cu­rity is step­ping up bor­der searches, but has strug­gled to ex­plain ex­actly what of­fi­cers are look­ing for. Only a tiny frac­tion of trav­el­ers — less than a hun­dredth of one per­cent — ac­tu­ally face a search, but the num­bers have been grow­ing, reach­ing a rate of 82 searches a day as of ear­lier this year — more than three times the rate in 2015.

Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion of­fi­cials say they’re try­ing to “en­force the na­tion’s laws in this dig­i­tal age,” and say they’ve found in­for­ma­tion on po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist plots, child pornog­ra­phy, visa fraud and vi­o­la­tions of ex­port laws.

But CBP has been un­able to say how many ter­ror­ist plots have been dis­rupted by the searches.

The ACLU, in the new law­suit, said the searches mark a ma­jor breach of faith with pri­vacy pro­tec­tions.

“The vol­ume and de­tail of per­sonal data con­tained on th­ese de­vices pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of trav­el­ers’ pri­vate lives, mak­ing mo­bile elec­tronic de­vices un­like lug­gage or other items that trav­el­ers bring across the bor­der,” the law­suit said.

CBP and an­other im­mi­gra­tion agency, U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment (ICE) — both part of the Home­land Se­cu­rity De­part­ment — have poli­cies al­low­ing bor­der searches of elec­tronic de­vices with­out first ob­tain­ing a war­rant or demon­strat­ing prob­a­ble cause.

In most cases the search is in­stan­ta­neous, but some­times of­fi­cers will hold the de­vice — which can be a smart­phone, lap­top, tablet or other elec­tronic stor­age medium — to do a more thor­ough check.

CBP didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment Wed­nes­day.

One of the plain­tiffs in the new law­suit, Matthew Wright, a com­puter pro­gram­mer, trav­eled to south­east Asia in 2016 for Ul­ti­mate Fris­bee tour­na­ments, then re­turned back to the U.S.

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