A NASA engineer and others are suing CBP for searching their devices

A Customs and Border Protection officer talks with arriving travelers  at Los Angeles International Airport.

Image: REED SAXON/AP/REX/Shutterstock

A NASA engineer and 10 others are suing Customs and Border Protection over what they believe to be illegal searches of electronics.

The group of 11 includes 10 U.S. citizens as well as a permanent resident, and they have the backing of the ACLU as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“This lawsuit challenges searches and seizures of smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices at the U.S. border in violation of the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” the lawsuit states.

Sidd Bikkannavar, the NASA engineer, had just flown into Houston after spending some time in Chile, where he was hanging out at a solar-powered car race, when a CBP official allegedly took and searched his phone without a warrant after demanding that Bikkannavar give up his password.

“The government cannot use the border as a dragnet to search through our private data,” ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari said in a statement. “Our electronic devices contain massive amounts of information that can paint a detailed picture of our personal lives, including emails, texts, contact lists, photos, work documents, and medical or financial records.”

In April, CBP Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan issued private guidelines to his agency that said “border searches conducted by CBP do not extend to information that is located solely on remote servers.” This implies that agents can search texts but not, for example, your social media profiles (for U.S. citizens, anyway). 

Of course, once an agent has your phone and its password, there’s not a whole lot stopping him or her from tapping the Facebook icon. Travelers don’t have to give up their passwords, but that puts them at risk of having their phone taken to a back room, potentially unlocked via other means, and checked with greater suspicion. 

Lawyers with expertise in immigration and social data have recommended that those who can should travel with an extra phone and/or laptop that doesn’t have much personal information on it. 

Device searches — and lawsuits that arise from the practice — are probably going to continue to show up in the news. CBP officials nearly doubled their number of device searches from October 2016 through March 2017, compared with that same time period during the previous year, from around 8,000 to nearly 15,000. 

“The number of electronic device searches at the border began increasing in 2016 and has grown even more under the Trump administration,” wrote the authors of a statement published on the websites of the ACLU and the EFF.  

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