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DHS faces lawsuit over phone and laptop border searches

The ACLU wants a warrant to be required before electronic devices can be searched.
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tzahiV via Getty Images

The number of electronic devices seized and searched at customs sharply increased in 2016 and has continued to rise this year. A number of groups and politicians have spoken out against the growing practice and now the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of 11 individuals who had their devices searched without a warrant.

The plaintiffs include ten US citizens and a lawful permanent resident whose smartphones and laptops were searched while they were reentering the country. The group includes students, filmmakers, a professor, journalists, business owners, a NASA engineer and a former Air Force captain. Some of them had their devices confiscated for months and the phone taken from the NASA engineer actually belonged to NASA, which could mean that sensitive agency information was accessible through it. One plaintiff was even allegedly choked and held down by officers when he declined to hand over his phone.

According to a US Customs and Border Protection report, while just over 8,500 devices were searched in 2015, that number jumped up to over 19,000 in 2016 and in the first six months of the current fiscal year, the agency had already searched nearly 15,000 devices. A group of senators -- both republicans and democrats -- have introduced legislation that would require a warrant or probable cause before searching electronic devices at the border. The EFF has supported the push for required warrants.

In a statement, ACLU attorneys said, "This kind of arbitrary intrusion into people's lives isn't just outrageous, unnecessary, illogical, and wasteful. It's also unconstitutional, in violation of both the First and Fourth Amendments." They added, "We do not forfeit our constitutional rights when we return to the United States from abroad. If government agents want to search a person's electronic devices, they can ask a judge for a warrant. This is what the Constitution demands. Our clients understand this. They're standing up for all of us, and we're standing with them."

You can see the full filing here.

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