The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have filed suit on behalf of 11 passengers whose electronic devices were searched at the border, violating their privacy.
According to the EFF, the inspections were carried out without a previous warrant, which would constitute a direct violation of the constitution. According to the organization, this demand “challenges the government’s fast-growing practice of searching travelers’ electronic devices without a warrant. It seeks to establish that the government must have a warrant based on probable cause to suspect a violation of immigration or customs laws before conducting such searches.”
The plaintiffs represented by the EFF and the ACLU are 10 US citizens and a permanent legal resident, including a veteran of the Army, journalists, students an artist, a NASA engineer and an entrepreneur. According to the report, several of them are Muslims or people of color, and all were “reentering the country from business or personal travel when border officers searched their devices.” While none of them was charged with any wrongdoing, “the officers confiscated and kept the devices of several plaintiffs for weeks or months—DHS has held one plaintiff’s device since January”.
According to EFF’s staff attorney Sophia Cope, electronic devices are nowadays the most sensitive centers of information and personal data storage, where people save “their whole lives, including extremely sensitive personal and business matters”, which is the reason why they always carry them while traveling. It’s high time that the courts require the government to stop treating the border as a place where they can end-run the Constitution,” sentenced Cope.
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reported in April that the searches increased from 8.500 in the fiscal year 2015 to 19.000 in 2016. Since then, the agency has carried out around 15.000 searches in the first half of the fiscal year 2017, as reported by Reuters.
The lawsuit was introduced in the District Court of Massachusetts, signed by travelers like Sidd Bikkannavar, en engineer from the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, who was detained in the airport in Houston when he was reentering the country after a vacation trip to Chile. As Bikkannavar declared, an agent from the Customs and Border Protection (CPB) requested him to deliver the password for his phone. The agent returned the device half an hour later, assuring it was being inspected using “algorithms”.
Refusing to the procedure can carry out physical restraining, as suffered by Akram Shibly, an independent filmmaker who lives in New York, who was reentering the country through the US-Canada border, after taking a social trip to Toronto in January, when a CPB agent ordered him to deliver his smartphone. Three days before, another agent had asked him the same thing during a work trip and Shilby decided to refuse this time. The agents resorted to violent immobilization to remove the device that was returned an hour later.
The plaintiff joined the complaint against the administration so other people don’t have to have to go through what happened to me,” Shibly said. “Border agents should not be able to coerce people into providing access to their phones, physically or otherwise.”
According to ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari, the Fourth Amendment requires the government to have a search warrant before it can review the content of smartphones and laptops at the border, and the failure to do so is an open violation of the Constitution.