Groups File Suit to Stop Warrantless Tech Searches at Borders

Homeland Security officials seize and snoop into thousands of phones and laptops without any evidence of criminal activity.


laptop surveillance
Flynt / Dreamstime

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are suing the federal government to stop warrantless searches of tech devices at border entry points.

They're representing 10 United States citizens and one permanent resident. Each has faced demands by Department of Homeland Security officials to hand over or allow access to tech devices, such as phones or laptops, when returning to the country. The officials did not have warrants. None of these plaintiffs were accused of any illegal behavior. But officials nevertheless confiscated and/or attempted to access their devices.

Some examples of what they dealt with, courtesy of EFF:

Plaintiff Diane Maye, a college professor and former U.S. Air Force officer, was detained for two hours at Miami International Airport when coming home from a vacation in Europe in June. "I felt humiliated and violated. I worried that border officers would read my email messages and texts, and look at my photos," she said. "This was my life, and a border officer held it in the palm of his hand. I joined this lawsuit because I strongly believe the government shouldn't have the unfettered power to invade your privacy."

Plaintiff Sidd Bikkannavar, an engineer for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, was detained at the Houston airport on the way home from vacation in Chile. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officer demanded that he reveal the password for his phone. The officer returned the phone a half-hour later, saying that it had been searched using "algorithms."

Another plaintiff was subjected to violence. Akram Shibly, an independent filmmaker who lives in upstate New York, was crossing the U.S.-Canada border after a social outing in the Toronto area in January when a CBP officer ordered him to hand over his phone. CBP had just searched his phone three days earlier when he was returning from a work trip in Toronto, so Shibly declined. Officers then physically restrained him, with one choking him and another holding his legs, and took his phone from his pocket. They kept the phone, which was already unlocked, for over an hour before giving it back.

Though this lawsuit covers only 11 people, we know that Customs and Border Patrol agents are actually searching thousands of phones and tech devices each month, all without warrants.

The lawsuit argues these searches violate the defendants' First and Fourth Amendment rights. It asks the court to enjoin border officials from confiscating or searching anybody's tech devices absent a warrant based on probable cause, and to make them expunge any information they've collected from the plaintiffs' devices.

The lawsuit leans on the Supreme Court's decision in Riley v. California in 2014 for support. In that case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a warrant was needed to search a person's cellphone when that person is arrested. Historically, though, courts have given federal authorities much more leeway to engage in warrantless searches near the borders.

Read the lawsuit, Alasaad v. Duke, here. Note that some members of Congress are trying to fix this problem legislatively by introducing a bill mandating that border officials get warrants before searching the tech devices of Americans crossing the border.

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  1. Don’t wanna be a thug, don’t be havin’ a terroristy name while crossin’ borders.

    1. Don’t wanna be treated like a thug, don’t use a ubiquitous item like a cellphone like thug.

  2. “The lawsuit argues these searches violate the defendants’ First and Fourth Amendment rights”

    how would this violate the first amendment? Don’t get it

    1. Likely the claim is that such behavior has a chilling effect of the exercise of free speech.

  3. RE: Groups File Suit to Stop Warrantless Tech Searches at Borders
    Homeland Security officials seize and snoop into thousands of phones and laptops without any evidence of criminal activity.

    Of course they are engaging in criminal activity.
    Otherwise these miscreants wouldn’t have phones and laptops in the first place.
    That’s just elementary police procedure in this country.

  4. No search or seizure without a warrant based upon probable cause is so easy only law enforcement could fuck it up.

    1. Like the two arrogant dimwits blocking traffic for a couple of hours while taking a couple of kids’ car apart in one lane of a two lane road tonight? I’m fine with them having the fools handcuffed and sitting on the grass while they searched the car, but how about calling for backup to direct traffic? The lane with the stopped car was pulling blithely into the oncoming lane, while those of us in the oncoming lane sat. At this point, it’s a dead heat between every cop in Massachusetts being incredibly stupid or incredibly arrogant.

  5. It seems pretty well supported by the courts that searching your person and belongings at the border requires no warrant or specific suspicion. But that (I think) is justified by the need to control what crosses the border, so duties can be collected and contraband kept out of the country. But searching electronic devices has no such justification. There is no effective way to keep information from crossing borders without massive restrictions on communications (and even then it’s impossible to completely stop it) and there is nothing you can smuggle into the country on a laptop that you can’t send electronically.

    So hopefully the courts can do some good on this. Borders will always be a place where rights against searches are not as robust, but there should at least be some good justification for it, particularly when applied to US citizens on US territory.

  6. So now the customs guys will just ‘asset forfeiture’ everyone’s phone, since not even an arrest is required for that. Then, after a technical determination that the phone does not have enough value to be forfeit, they will return it.
    As a convenience, they will improve the performance by copying off and deleting the photos and emails and the like.
    See, all nice and legal.
    No worries.

  7. The most disturbing part is they can find people willing to do such things.

  8. 1… 2… 3…


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