Thursday, December 28, 2017

Privacy Complaints Mount Over Phone Searches at U.S. Border Since 2011

American courts have long permitted government agents who protect the borders to search, without a warrant or any specific basis for suspicion, the possessions carried by people as they cross. But smartphones and other personal electronics contain vastly more private information than suitcases.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed a lawsuit in Boston arguing that a warrant should be required to search such devices at the border. Last week, the Trump administration asked a judge to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit comes amid a surge in agents looking through — and sometimes copying data from — cellphones and laptops. Midway through fiscal year 2017, Customs and Border Protection was on pace to search 30,000 travelers’ electronics — more than tripling the annual number by that agency since 2015, when it searched 8,503 people’s devices.

The complaints were submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. In many cases, the people list a set of grievances in addition to feeling their privacy was violated, like being detained for hours and missing connecting flights. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University obtained the filed complaints under the Freedom of Information Act and provided them to The New York Times.

A lawyer at the institute, Carrie DeCell, called the practice “digital strip-searches.”

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