Published: Fri, November 15, 2019
Electronics | By Kelly Massey

Federal Judge in Boston Rules Against Indiscriminate Searches of Travelers' Electronic Devices

Federal Judge in Boston Rules Against Indiscriminate Searches of Travelers' Electronic Devices

Judge Casper said border and customs agents can still do a cursory look at devices, such as turning them on to make sure they work and confirming their ownership, but more extensive looks into the contents require an articulated suspicion of wrongdoing.

It's hard to overstate how much personal information our electronic devices contain, and how revealing searches of those devices can be. Their smartphones and laptops were searched without individualized suspicion, the ACLU said.

Casper ruled with the plaintiffs, 11 travellers who said that their rights were violated when they were subject to searches not meeting those minimum prerequisites.

The case was introduced by 11 vacationers - ten of that are USA residents - with help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Digital Frontier Basis, who stated border brokers searched their smartphones and laptops and not using a warrant, or any suspicion of wrongdoing or prison exercise. As the Supreme Court put it, equating searches of physical items and digital devices "is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon...."

"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", Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said of the ruling.

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A basic search consists of other types of searches of electronic devices using their native operating system.

In fiscal 2019, border officials searched 40,913 travelers' devices - a fourfold increase since 2015 - without any need for reasonable suspicion. However the resolve wrote that "the selection of noted digital devices possible is underestimated" given that of apparent shortcomings in how CBP calculates its info and as a result of reality "ICE does not keep information of the number of fundamental searches that it conducts".

An incoming 17-year-old Harvard University student from Lebanon was allegedly denied entry after an immigration officer at Boston Logan Airport searched his social media accounts and found comments from his friends critical of the USA government, Fox News reported. "Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse". In 2017, CBP conducted 30,200 searches of electronic devices at the border. "Such devices can contain, for some examples, prescription information, information about employment, travel history and browsing history".

Additionally, the court found that such searches could expose plaintiffs to ongoing harm, as border authorities can review the results of prior searches when deciding who to search in the future.

The case is Alasaad v. McAleenan.

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