Homeland Security Sued Over Warrantless Tech Searches at Border

BOSTON (CN) – Homeland Security officers improperly searched laptops and smartphones without warrants from people entering the country, 10 U.S. citizens and one green card holder claim in a federal class action Wednesday.

A group representing several Muslims and people of color, the plaintiffs include a military veteran, journalists, students, an artist, a NASA engineer and a business owner.

All were re-entering the United States from business or personal travel when border officers searched their devices. None were subsequently accused of any wrongdoing.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union want a federal judge to find that officers cannot search electronic devices without warrants based on probable cause that the devices will contain evidence of an immigration or customs violation.

Several of the individuals subjected to the searches say their devices remained in government custody for weeks or months.

Texas-based Suhaib Allababidi is still waiting for the return of a locked cellphone that the government confiscated from him in January, according to the complaint.

“People now store their whole lives, including extremely sensitive personal and business matters, on their phones, tablets, and laptops, and it’s reasonable for them to carry these with them when they travel,” EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope said in a statement about the lawsuit. “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.”

In the complaint, college professor Diane Maye describes being detained for two hours at Miami International Airport when coming home from a vacation in Europe in June.

“I felt humiliated and violated,” said Maye, who served in the U.S. Air Force. “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.”

Another plaintiff, Sidd Bikkannavar, is an engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The complaint says he was detained at the Houston airport on the way home from vacation in Chile. After coercing Bikkannavar into revealing his phone password, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer returned the phone a half-hour later, saying that it had been searched using “algorithms.”

“Such warrantless searches of travelers’ electronic devices unconstitutionally chill the exercise of speech and associational rights protected by the First Amendment,” the complaint states.

Akram Shibly, an independent filmmaker who lives in upstate New York, meanwhile says he was subjected to violence while crossing the U.S.-Canada border after a social outing in the Toronto area in January.

Shibly says a CBP officer ordered him to hand over his phone but that the agency had just searched his phone three days earlier when he was returning from a work trip in Toronto, so he 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.

“I joined this lawsuit so other people don’t have to have to go through what happened to me,” Shibly said in a statement through his attorneys. “Border agents should not be able to coerce people into providing access to their phones, physically or otherwise.”

CBP statistics released in April show that the number of electronic device searches at the border began increasing in 2016 and grows still under the Trump administration. CBP officers conducted nearly 15,000 electronic device searches in the first half of fiscal year 2017, putting CBP on track to conduct more than three times the number of searches than in fiscal year 2015 (8,503) and some 50 percent more than in fiscal year 2016 (19,033).

“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.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Adam Schwartz, Sophia Cope and Aaron Mackey from the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Esha Bhandari, Hugh Handeyside and Nathan Wessley from the ACLU; and Jessie Rossman and Matthew Segal from the ACLU of Massachusetts.

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