ACLU sues to block searches of electronic devices

The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a lawsuit Tuesday to block the U.S. government from conducting searches of electronic devices at U.S. borders.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York against the Homeland Security Department, claims the policy violates the First and Fourth Amendments. The policy allows customs officials to search, detain and copy computers, mobile phones, cameras and other electronic devices of both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens.

The case was filed on behalf of Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old U.S.-French dual citizen and Islamic studies doctorate student, whose laptop was detained for 11 days and searched after he was taken off an Amtrak train in upstate New York. Other plaintiffs in the case include the defense lawyers association, which is also working as a counsel on the case and whose president-elect had her laptop detained and searched, and the National Press Photographers Association, a member of which had his laptop searched in 2007 without reason, according to the lawsuit.

"Unchecked government fishing expeditions into the constitutionally protected materials on an innocent traveler's laptop or cell phone interfere with the ability of many Americans to do their jobs and do nothing to make us safer," Melissa Goodman, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, said in a statement. "Americans do not surrender their privacy and free speech rights when they travel abroad."

In a blog post, the ACLU said it does not oppose all searches of electronic devices, "but only that border agents should have some suspicion that the search will turn up evidence of wrongdoing before looking through all the private information that people have stored in their devices."

According to records obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act, more than 6,500 people, including nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens, had their electronic devices searched at U.S. borders between Oct. 1, 2008, and June 2, 2010.

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. But in an August 2009 news release announcing its revised policy on electronic searches, the department argued that "searches of electronic media, permitted by law and carried out at borders and ports of entry, are vital to detecting information that poses serious harm to the United States, including terrorist plans, or constitutes criminal activity--such as possession of child pornography and trademark or copyright infringement."

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