ACLU and EFF Sue Trump Administration Over Cell Phone Searches at the Border

10 US citizens who have had their electronic devices searched are suing the Department of Homeland Security.

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Sep 13 2017, 3:32pm

Image: Connor Robinson/Flickr

The American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the Department of Homeland Security Wednesday on behalf of 10 US citizens—including a NASA engineer and a former Air Force Captain—who had their electronic devices searched at the border. One permanent US resident, a Haitian citizen, also joins the suit.

"The effect of searches of mobile electronic devices on individual privacy and expression can hardly be overstated," ACLU and EFF attorneys wrote in the complaint, filed in US District Court in Massachusetts. "Searching personal electronic devices without a warrant based on probable cause violates the constitutional rights of individuals to keep the private and expressive details of their lives free from unwarranted government scrutiny.

Customs and Border Patrol searches of electronic devices have greatly increased in the last year, which encompasses both the Obama and Trump administrations. According to CBP data, roughly 15,000 devices were searched in the first half of the 2017 fiscal year (which started in October 2016). In all of fiscal year 2015, CBP performed 8,503 searches. Anecdotally based on high-profile media reports, the number of searches has increased primarily under the Trump administration, but official numbers are not currently available.

Screengrab from the complaint.

In one instance, Sidd Bikkannavar, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is part of the lawsuit, had his phone confiscated and searched by border control in Houston.

"After about 30 minutes, the officer returned the phone to Mr. Bikkannavar and informed him that officers had used 'algorithms' to search the contents of the phone, indicating that they used one or more forensic tools," the complaint reads. "The officer also informed Mr. Bikkannavar that officers had not found any 'derogatory' information about him."

In a press release, ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari said that the organization sees such instances as a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.

"The government cannot use the border as a dragnet to search through our private data," she said. "The Fourth Amendment requires that the government get a warrant before it can search the contents of smartphones and laptops at the border."