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Federal judge upholds the government's right to search electronics at the border

Federal judge upholds the government's right to search electronics at the border

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A US judge has declared that the government can still search and confiscate your electronic devices when you cross the border — dismissing a lawsuit against the policy largely on the grounds that such searches are rare occurrences.

In a ruling released on Tuesday, a judge out of the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York declared that the lawsuit plaintiffs didn't have grounds for their case. "There is not a substantial risk that their electronic devices will be subject to a search or seizure without reasonable suspicion," he noted. And even if the lawsuit had moved forward, the judge added that the government doesn't need reasonable suspicion to confiscate or search devices like laptops or cellphones.

His laptop was confiscated and held for nearly two weeks

The lawsuit in question was initially filed in 2010 by Pascal Abidor, a student pursuing a graduate degree in Islamic studies. Abidor was removed from a train while traveling from Canada back to the US, detained for several hours, and saw his laptop confiscated and held for nearly two weeks. He was joined as a plaintiff by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Press Photographers Association, who stated that traveling with confidential information on electronic devices was necessary for their work, and represented by the ACLU.

"Suspicionless searches of devices containing vast amounts of personal information cannot meet the standard set by the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures," reads a statement from ACLU attorney Catherine Crump. "Unfortunately, these searches are part of a broader pattern of aggressive government surveillance that collects information on too many innocent people, under lax standards, and without adequate oversight."

"Part of a broader pattern of aggressive government surveillance."

Although the rarity of such searches was a key premise to the lawsuit's dismissal, it's actually unclear how often US border agents examine or confiscate electronics. According to reports cited by the New York Times, the system for tracking electronic device searches is flawed, "making it difficult to provide accurate operational data concerning searches of electronic devices."