US Court rules travellers' phones and laptops cannot be searched arbitrarily

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A federal court in Boston has ruled that US government agents cannot search phones and laptops of international travellers at airports and other US ports of entry without reasonable suspicion.

With the ruling on Tuesday, any warrantless searches will now be deemed as violations of the Fourth Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who raised the action along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on behalf of 11 travellers who had their laptops and phones searched at the US border, called the ruling a major victory for privacy rights.

“This ruling significantly advances Fourth Amendment protections for the millions of international travellers who enter the United States every year,” said Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. 

“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.”

In her judgment, District Court Judge Denise J Casper concluded that searches of the 11 travellers conducted by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — which provided access to photographs, contacts, emails, and data that was of a personally and professionally sensitive nature — were breaches of their privacy.

See also: US border agents aren’t deleting travelers’ data after device searches  

Prior to the decision, CBP had long argued that travellers crossing into and out of the US border have no Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. According to the EFF, CBP conducted more than 33,000 searches, almost four times the number from just three years prior.

“The CBP and ICE policies for ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’ searches, as presently defined, violate the Fourth Amendment to the extent that the policies do not require reasonable suspicion that the devices contain contraband for both such classes of non-cursory searches and/or seizure of electronic devices,” Casper found.

As a result of the ruling, CBP and ICE will no longer be able to stop travellers arbitrarily.  

Casper noted in her decision that a person is only “reasonably suspicious” if government agents can “point to specific and articulable facts considered together with the rational inferences that can be drawn from those facts”. 

“This is a great day for travellers who now can cross the international border without fear that the government will, in the absence of any suspicion, ransack the extraordinarily sensitive information we all carry in our electronic devices,” said Sophia Cope, EFF senior staff attorney.

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