A federal court has ruled that suspicionless searches of international travelers’ smartphones and laptops at U.S. ports of entry are unconstitutional. According to the decision, the searches violate the Fourth Amendment, which provides people protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. The court ruled that border officials need justifiable reasons to search a person’s electronic devices, and that decision should be balanced against the privacy interests of travelers.
The 48-page decision, delivered by U.S. district judge Denise Casper, is the result of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The agency represented a group of 11 travelers who claimed that their devices were taken and their personal data searched without cause. Ten of the travelers are U.S. citizens, and one is a lawful resident.
The ruling is a higher standard than current U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies. CBP policy allowed for basic searches, which had officers manually looking through devices and advanced searches, which let officers connect travelers’ electronics to external machines to review or copy their data. Officers were also allowed to request passcodes and detain devices that were encrypted or inaccessible for further review.
The ACLU has hailed the decision as a “major victory for privacy rights.” ACLU lawyer Esha Bhandari commented that the decision “significantly advances Fourth Amendment protections for the millions of international travelers who enter the United States every year.”
It is important to note that the ruling does not apply if border agents suspect the traveler of a crime, and there is “probable cause” that the device contains “evidence of contraband.” This is the same standard applied for police search warrants.