U.S. judge rules suspicionless searches of travelers' electronic devices unconstitutional

U.S. judge rules suspicionless searches of travelers' electronic devices unconstitutional

U.S. judge rules suspicionless searches of travelers' electronic devices unconstitutional

The government does need to have a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity before it can search or seize Americans' electronic devices at USA ports and border crossings, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, delivering a significant victory to civil liberties advocates.

Until now, border agents could demand a search of any laptop, smartphone, tablet or other electronic device, regardless of the bearer's citizenship.

In a major victory for privacy, a federal court ruled today that the government's suspicionless searches of worldwide travelers' smartphones and laptops at airports and other US ports of entry violate the Fourth Amendment.

That's a significant victory for civil liberties advocates, who say the government's own rules allowing its border agents to search electronic devices at the border without a warrant are unconstitutional.

Plaintiffs in the case include Sidd Bikkannavar, an optical engineer for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory living in California; Jeremy Dupin, a journalist living in MA; and Diane Maye, a college professor and former U.S. Air Force captain living in Florida. "This was my life, and a border officer held it in the palm of his hand".

Key is the recognition by the court that "even border searches are not boundless" and that our mobile devices increasingly contain far more personal information than anything else we might commonly travel with.

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The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 11 travelers: 10 U.S. citizens and one lawful permanent resident.

Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said the ruling "significantly advances" protections under the Fourth Amendment.

Homeland Security's immigration agencies had previously asserted an unfettered right to peek at travelers' devices, but Judge Denise J. Casper, an Obama appointee, said that violates the Constitution's privacy protections.

Last year, CBP called searches at the border "essential" to enforcing the law and national security. While the court agreed that the U.S. government's "interest in preventing the entry of unwanted persons and effects is at its zenith" at the border, it countered that it "must still be reasonable and subject to the same balancing of the level of intrusion upon an individual's privacy and its necessity for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests". That's up almost fourfold over the past three years.

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