Lawsuit seeks to protect your smartphone at U.S. border
Two leading civil rights groups sued the U.S. government this week in hopes of curbing the wide-ranging ability of federal agents to search and seize the smartphones and computers of travellers — including U.S. citizens — as they arrive on American soil but have not yet formally entered the country.
The practice, which remains rare but has grown more frequent in recent years, allows agents in border zones such as the arrivals areas of international airports to sidestep the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Riley decision in 2014 requiring that law enforcement officers get search warrants before examining the contents of digital devices.
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, email communications, videos and web-browsing histories — that they should be afforded full Fourth Amendment protections against searches and seizures without warrants.
Wednesday’s suit, filed against the Department of Homeland Security by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, demands stricter legal standards for device searches in border areas.
They argue that relatively lax rules established for searching luggage or goods bought in duty-free shops should not apply to modern smartphones, tablets and laptop computers routinely carried through borders.
The suit says that the number of such searches — conducted by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, sometimes with the assistance of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — have grown sharply in recent years and is on track to reach 30,000 in the current fiscal year. That remains a tiny fraction of the several hundred million travellers who enter the U.S. every year.
“The government cannot use the border as a dragnet to search through our private data,” ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari said in a statement. “Our elec- tronic devices contain massive amounts of information that can paint a detailed picture of our personal lives. The Fourth Amendment requires that the government get a warrant before it can search the contents of smartphones and laptops at the border.”
A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson, David Lapan, declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing department policy against discussing pending litigation. But he said that all travellers are subject to searches, including of their electronic devices, as they enter the United States.
“Over the past few years, CBP has adapted and adjusted our actions to align with current threat information, which is based on intelligence,” Lapan said in a statement to the Washington Post. “Despite an increase in electronic media searches during the last fiscal year, it remains that CBP examines the electronic devices of less than one-hundredth of 1 per cent of travellers arriving to the United States.”
The suit was filed in a federal court in Boston.