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ACLU lawsuit demands information on US border laptop search policy

[JURIST] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] filed a lawsuit [complaint, PDF; press release] Wednesday demanding access to documents related to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) [official website] policy of searching travelers' laptop computers. The ACLU originally requested the documents [FOIA request, PDF] in June under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [text] and filed suit Wednesday in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York [official website] to enforce that request. The ACLU alleges that the laptop search policy violates travelers' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures because laptops are searched without "individualized suspicion" of wrongdoing. ACLU National Security Project staff attorney Larry Schwartztol said:

Under CBP's policy, innumerable international travelers have had their most personal information searched by government officials and retained by the government indefinitely. The disclosure of these records is necessary to better understand the extent to which US border and customs officials may be violating the Constitution.

The ACLU is seeking information related to the criteria for selecting who will be searched, how many searches have been conducted, and what types of devices or documents have been retained.

Last year, US Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) [official website] criticized the CBP's warrantless searches and seizures of travelers' laptops and other digital devices at the US border, calling the searches an unacceptable invasion of privacy [JURIST report]. The US Supreme Court has held that reasonable suspicion is not necessary to conduct routine searches at the border, but Feingold said that searches of laptops and other digital devices are analogous to more invasive practices such as strip searches. In April of last year, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] that reasonable suspicion is not necessary for a warrantless search of a laptop or other digital device at the border due to inherent national security interests. The court rejected the argument that a laptop is like a human mind because of its ability to record ideas and emails, and held instead that a laptop is the same as closed containers such as purses and wallets.

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