Wed | Jan 22, 2020

Court rules against searching phones, laptops of international travellers at US airports

Published:Wednesday | November 13, 2019 | 9:42 AM
In this Wednesday, November 21, 2018 file photo, travellers check their phones at Indianapolis International Airport in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

BOSTON (AP) — A federal court in Boston has ruled that warrantless US government searches of the phones and laptops of international travellers at airports and other ports of entry violate the Fourth Amendment.

Tuesday’s ruling in US District Court came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of 11 travellers whose smartphones and laptops were searched without individualised suspicion at US ports of entry.

ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari said the ruling strengthens Fourth Amendment protections of international travellers who enter the United States every year.

The ACLU describes the searches as “fishing expeditions.”

They say border officers must now demonstrate individualised suspicion of contraband before they can search a traveller’s device.

The government has vigorously defended the searches as a critical tool to protect America.

The number of electronic device searches at US ports of entry has increased significantly, the ACLU said.

Last year, the government conducted more than 33,000 searches, almost four times the number from just three years prior.

Documents filed as part of the lawsuit claim the scope of the warrantless searches has expanded to assist in the enforcement of tax, bankruptcy, environmental and consumer protection laws, gather intelligence and advance criminal investigations.

The court documents also said agents with US Customs and Border Protection and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement consider requests from other government agencies in determining whether to search travellers’ electronic devices.

They added that agents are searching the electronic devices of not only targeted individuals but their associates, friends and relatives.

“By putting an end to the government’s ability to conduct suspicionless 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,” Bhandari said in a press release.

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