ACLU files suit to stop cellphone search at border
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.