'The government cannot use the border as a dragnet to search through our private data,' says ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed the suit in a Boston, Massachusetts U.S. District Court on behalf of 10 U.S. citizens and one permanent resident.
The suit names Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Elaine Duke as the defendant alongside Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Kevin McAleenan and Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan.
It alleges that the 11 travelers of various backgrounds had their laptops and phones searched at the border by DHS in a practice the ACLU described as "fast-growing".
The suit seeks to have authorities receive warrants based on probable cause before carrying out the searches. It is also challenging the confiscations of the devices for periods lasting weeks or months, the ACLU said.
“The government cannot use the border as a dragnet to search through our private data,” ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari said in a statement.
“Our electronic devices contain massive amounts of information that can paint a detailed picture of our personal lives, including emails, texts, contact lists, photos, work documents, and medical or financial records. The Fourth Amendment requires that the government get a warrant before it can search the contents of smartphones and laptops at the border.”
A military veteran, journalists, students, an artist and a NASA engineer are among the plaintiffs. Several are Muslims or people of color, the ACLU said.
One of the plaintiffs, Akram Shibly, was physically restrained by customs agents at the U.S.-Canadian border after refusing to hand over his phone, which was subsequently taken from his pocket and searched for over an hour, the ACLU alleged.
He previously gave agents the phone when crossing into Canada three days earlier, the rights group said.
“I joined this lawsuit so other people don’t have to go through what happened to me,” Shibly said in the ACLU's statement. “Border agents should not be able to coerce people into providing access to their phones, physically or otherwise.”
Customs and Border Protection, which falls under DHS, has conducted searches of almost 15,000 electronic devices in the first half of the 2017 fiscal year. The number puts CBP on pace to triple the total number of searches in fiscal year 2015, according to the ACLU.