ACLU and EFF sue DHS over warrantless gadget searches at border

Controversy over warrantless laptop and smartphone searches at the border abound, and now the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are going after the Department of Homeland Security over it. Both organizations have filed a lawsuit against the DHS on behalf of 11 people — 10 US citizens and one green card holder — who were subjected to these warrantless devices search when attempting to enter the US from abroad.

The organizations announced the lawsuit today, saying it was filed in Massachusetts and seeks to challenge these warrantless border searches as unconstitutional. The 11 individuals represented by this lawsuit are said to comprise a variety of positions in society, including journalists, a veteran, engineer, artist, students, and a business owner. Several of these individuals had their devices confiscated and kept by border agents for months.

"The border should not serve as a dragnet for law enforcement to pry into our personal and professional lives," the ACLU declared today. The organization points toward a host of privacy concerns. Not only can border officials search a device without reason or warrant, the ACLU points out that they can download all of the data from a device, retain it, and then search it at a different time.

PSA: US Border Patrol can't search your phone's cloud data

This not only presents a severe privacy violation and leaves data potentially vulnerable (as it can no longer be controlled once copied by border officials), it also presents larger risks to companies and agencies whose employees and representatives have access to confidence data via their devices.

Perhaps the most recent example of this was the warrantless border search of a NASA employee who was threatened into unlocking his smartphone for a border agent...a phone issued by the space agency that contained highly sensitive data. Agents copied this data off the device — despite reportedly knowing it was a NASA unit — putting the data at risk. Business travelers and journalists have reported similar copying of sensitive information.

For some individuals, these searches go a step further and result in the device(s) being confiscated altogether, leaving travelers without their phone, tablet and/or laptop for weeks or months on end.

"In carrying out device searches, border officials take advantage of the fact that travelers have no meaningful way to resist or contest the searches," the ACLU explains. Anyone who refuses to provide their device passwords face device confiscation or being physically detained for long periods of time. Some individuals, including one of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, describe being physically assaulted after refusing to turn over a password.

You can view the full list of plaintiffs and legal documents via the EFF here.