With the border wall fight looming large in Congress, another kind of battle at the border is heating up. On Wednesday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit with the Department of Homeland Security over warrantless border searches. In the case, Alasaad v. Duke, two organizations will represent 11 individuals who had U.S. border agents search their computers and smartphones without any kind of warrant. Elaine Duke is the current acting secretary of DHS following General John Kelly’s move into the innermost White House circle as chief of staff.
The plaintiff details in the case are pretty interesting. Ten of the 11 are U.S. citizens with the outlier being a permanent resident. According to the EFF, several are Muslims and people of color who have presumably been singled out by border agents newly emboldened by this administration’s aggressive pursuit of travel and immigration policies targeting those groups. The plaintiff group includes a NASA engineer, students, journalists and a veteran who were returning to the U.S. from international travel at the time of the searches. Some of these individuals had their smartphones held by border officers for months, though none were accused of any particular crime.
In the case of NASA engineer Sidd Bikkannavar, the plaintiff was on his way back from a vacation to Chile when a Customs and Border Protection officer in the Houston airport forced him to unlock his phone using his password and hand it over. The officer took the phone for half an hour, explaining that the agency used “algorithms” to examine its content. In other instances, a plaintiff alleges that he was physically assaulted by border agents who confiscated his unlocked smartphone. The EFF release offers the full list of plaintiffs and their stories.
“The government cannot use the border as a dragnet to search through our private data,” ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari said of the case, filed in the Massachusetts U.S. District Court. “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. The Fourth Amendment requires that the government get a warrant before it can search the contents of smartphones and laptops at the border.”