US Homeland Security Sued Over Warrantless Search of Electronics

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A group of 11 plaintiffs - including NASA engineer Sidd Bikkannavar - is suing US Customs and Border Protection over warrantless border searches of phones and laptops.

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. "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".

The lawsuit contends border searches of electronic devices violate the First and Fourth Amendments absent a warrant and probable cause that the devices have data indicating a traveler has broken an immigration or customs law.

Device searches - and lawsuits that arise from the practice - are probably going to continue to show up in the news. Several are Muslim; others are people of color. Some of these individuals had their smartphones held by border officers for months, though none were accused of any particular crime.

But the rights organizations say that argument doesn't hold water.

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As a result, border officials can learn far more about an individual than is reasonable for assessing whether they should enter the country: everything from their health, religion, sexual orientation, personal life and so on. Business travelers and journalists have reported similar copying of sensitive information. "Border agents should not be able to coerce people into providing access to their phones, physically or otherwise".

They asked her if she knew any Iraqis. Border agents asked him to unlock his laptop.

It's fair to say that it may be hard to get public support behind a meth smuggler, so this new lawsuit aims to bring the issue into the mainstream. Border agents conducted nearly 15,000 searches of electronic devices in the first half of 2017, putting the agency on track to conduct about 30,000 searches this fiscal year, the ACLU said, citing government data.

According to the institute, Homeland Security has started handing over some documents, but they remain heavily redacted and it is considering challenging the extent of those redactions.

That's compared to 8,503 in 2015 and 19,033 in 2016 - both annual statistics. Investing border agents with this kind of authority invites abuse and discrimination and will inevitably have a chilling effect on the freedoms of speech and association. It's still unclear whether any classified data was compromised during the search. That legislation now sits in committee.

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ACLU suit challenges warrantless searches...

"I felt humiliated and violated. I have banking information, text messages, photographs", said Maye, who was released with her computer and cellphone in hand.

An employee of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Bikkannavar was detained while returning from South America in February. The officer took the phone for half an hour, explaining that the agency used "algorithms" to examine its content.

No one knows what that actually means, however, thanks to the level of secrecy over what customs agents do with confiscated phones and laptops.

Sidd Bikkannavar, the NASA engineer, had just flown into Houston after spending some time in Chile, where he was hanging out at a solar-powered vehicle race, when a CBP official allegedly took and searched his phone without a warrant after demanding that Bikkannavar give up his password.

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