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Rights groups file suit challenging border laptop search policy

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) [advocacy websites] filed a lawsuit [complaint, PDF] Tuesday against the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) [official website] challenging a government policy that allows border patrol to search electronic devices without reasonable suspicion. The plaintiffs, which also include press photographers and a university student, claim that the law violates constitutional rights [press release] to privacy and freedom of speech:

Electronic devices like laptops, "smart" phones, and external data storage devices hold vast amounts of personal and sensitive information that reveals a vivid pictures of travelers' personal and professional lives, including their intimate thoughts, private communications, expressive choices, and privileged or confidential work product. [The] policies and practices of searching, copying, and detaining these personal devices without suspicion or judicial supervision violates the constitutional rights of American citizens to keep the private and expressive details of their lives, as well as sensitive information obtained or created in the course of their work, free from unwarranted government scrutiny.
American citizen and university student Pascal Abidor had his laptop searched and confiscated while on a train from Montreal to New York. Abidor was interrogated and released without charge several hours later. Documents gathered by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [official website] reported that, under the DHS policy, more than 6,600 travelers, nearly half of whom are American citizens, were subjected to electronic device searches at the border between October 1, 2008, and June 2, 2010.

In 2008, US Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) [official website] criticized [JURIST report] the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) [official website] for warrantless searches and seizures of travelers' laptops and other digital devices at the US border, calling the searches an unacceptable invasion of privacy [hearing materials]. The Supreme Court has held that reasonable suspicion is not necessary to conduct routine searches at the border, but searches of laptops and other digital devices are analogous to more invasive practices such as strip searches, said Feingold.

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