A federal judge in Boston has ruled that the indiscriminate search and seizure of smartphones and laptops of travellers at U.S. borders violates their Fourth Amendment rights.
U.S. District Judge Denise J. Casper made the ruling Tuesday in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in September 2017 on behalf of 11 travellers whose electronic devices were searched by border officials at U.S. ports of entry.
In the ruling, Casper said Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Control agents must be able to point to “specific and articulable facts for reasonable suspicion” that the devices contain contraband to perform searches.
Casper, however, ruled that searches based on reasonable suspicion could be performed without a warrant due to the governmental interests present at the border.
ACLU cheered the ruling as a major victory for privacy rights, stating that it not only protects international travellers by U.S. citizens.
“By putting an end to the government’s ability to conduct suspicion less fishing expeditions, the court reaffirms that the border is not a lawless place and that we don’t lose our privacy rights when we travel,” said Esha Bhandari, an attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
The ruling comes as the CBP has increasingly searched the electronic devices of travellers at U.S. borders. According to CBP data, 30,200 electronic devices were searched in fiscal year 2017, up from 19,051 the year prior and 8,503 in 2015. CBP Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner has argued that electronic device searches are “essential” to enforcing U.S. law at its borders.
Among the plaintiffs who sued include Zainab Merchant, a student at Harvard University, who had her phone searched despite informing the agent that it contained private communications between herself and her lawyer. Another, Sidd Bikkannavar, an engineer at NASA, said border agents confiscated his phone and examined his emails, texts and other private information.
All of the plaintiffs were U.S. citizens except for one who was a permanent resident.
“This is a great day for travellers who now can cross the international border without fear that the government will, in the absence of any suspicion, ransack the extraordinarily sensitive information we all carry in our electronic devices,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Sophia Cope in a statement.