United States officials have largely unchecked power to search electronic devices at the border, and can share the resulting data widely, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.
The organization, which is suing both Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agencies had released new information on how they conduct border searches. Civil liberties advocates have argued that officials are exercising unconstitutional powers to search devices, and the ACLU and Electronic Frontier foundation today asked a federal court to rule without trial that those searches violate the First and Fourth Amendments.
“The information we uncovered through our lawsuit shows that CBP and ICE are asserting near-unfettered authority to search and seize travelers’ devices at the border, for purposes far afield from the enforcement of immigration and customs laws,” the ACLU said in a statement. The organization is representing a group of 11 people who had their phones or laptops searched at the border.
CBP data shows those searches have expanded rapidly in recent years, and climbed to more than 30,000 in 2017. According to the ACLU, which cites policy documents and testimony it obtained through the litigation, border officials can search devices for purposes well beyond immigration enforcement. Officials can also conduct searches as a “risk assessment,” allowing them to follow previously existing investigations, and can consider requests from other agencies to search individual travelers.
Officials can also search devices to obtain information on other people, according to the ACLU, potentially violating the privacy of people who know someone under investigation. The data obtained in searches can be stored and shared with law enforcement in the United States and around the world, the ACLU says.
An ICE spokesperson declined to comment. A CBP spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The border is not a lawless place, ICE and CBP are not exempt from the Constitution, and the information on our electronic devices is not devoid of Fourth Amendment protections,” ACLU staff attorney Esha Bhandari said in a statement. “We’re asking the court to stop these unlawful searches and require the government to get a warrant.”