Press Release

Privacy

ACLU and EFF sue over warrantless electronics searches at U.S. border

The ACLU of Massachusetts, along with the national ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sued the Department of Homeland Security today on behalf of 11 travelers whose smartphones and laptops were searched without warrants at the U.S. border.

The plaintiffs in the case are 10 U.S. citizens and one lawful permanent resident who hail from seven states and come from a variety of backgrounds. The lawsuit challenges the government’s fast-growing practice of searching travelers’ electronic devices without a warrant. It seeks to establish that the government must have a warrant based on probable cause to suspect a violation of immigration or customs laws before conducting such searches.

The plaintiffs include a military veteran, journalists, students, an artist, a NASA engineer, and a business owner. Several are Muslims or people of color. All were reentering the country from business or personal travel when border officers searched their devices. They were not subsequently accused of any wrongdoing. Officers also confiscated and kept the devices of several plaintiffs for weeks or months — DHS has held one plaintiff’s device since January.

“The government cannot use the border as a dragnet to search through our private data,” said ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari. “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.”

Plaintiff Diane Maye, a college professor and retired U.S. Air Force officer, was detained for two hours at Miami International Airport when coming home from a vacation in Europe in June. “I felt humiliated and violated. I worried that border officers would read my email messages and texts, and look at my photos,” she said. “This was my life, and a border officer held it in the palm of his hand. I joined this lawsuit because I strongly believe the government shouldn’t have the unfettered power to invade your privacy.”

Plaintiff Sidd Bikkannavar, an engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, was detained at the Houston airport on the way home from vacation in Chile. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officer demanded that he reveal the password for his phone. The officer returned the phone a half-hour later, saying that it had been searched using “algorithms.”

Another plaintiff was subjected to violence. Akram Shibly, an independent filmmaker who lives in upstate New York, was crossing the U.S.-Canada border after a social outing in the Toronto area in January when a CBP officer ordered him to hand over his phone. CBP had just searched his phone three days earlier when he was returning from a work trip in Toronto, so Shibly declined. Officers then physically restrained him, with one choking him and another holding his legs, and took his phone from his pocket. They kept the phone, which was already unlocked, for over an hour before giving it back.

“I joined this lawsuit so other people don’t have to have to go through what happened to me,” Shibly said. “Border agents should not be able to coerce people into providing access to their phones, physically or otherwise.”

Photo of the Alasaad family

The Alasaad family on September 12, 2017 in Revere, Mass. From left to right: Nadia Alasaad, Lamees Alasaad, 12, Ghassan Alasaad, Deena Alasaad, 11, Abubakir Alasaad, 17, and Leena Alasaad, 16.

“Our daughter kept getting sicker as we waited in secondary inspection for hours,” said Nadia Alasaad, a plaintiff who lives in Massachusetts who was detained with her husband and family on the way home from a family vacation in Quebec. “We were so desperate to get her home that we finally left without our phones after 6 hours of detention. No one should have to choose between their child’s health and their family’s privacy. I was humiliated. There were pictures sent between myself and my daughter that not even my husband had seen, and photographs without my headscarf on. Now border officers have seen all of these images. I feel so violated.”

“You carry your whole life with you on your phone,” said Ghassan Alasaad. “The government shouldn’t get to search through all of it whenever you travel internationally. In our case, the border agents not only pried into our private life, they destroyed parts of it. When they finally returned my phone, some of the videos of our daughter’s graduation were gone. We want to try to make sure this never happens again.”

The number of electronic device searches at the border began increasing in 2016 and has grown even more under the Trump administration. CBP officers conducted nearly 15,000 electronic device searches in the first half of fiscal year 2017, putting CBP on track to conduct more than three times the number of searches than in fiscal year 2015 (8,503) and some 50 percent more than in fiscal year 2016 (19,033).

“People now store their whole lives, including extremely sensitive personal and business matters, on their phones, tablets, and laptops, and it’s reasonable for them to carry these with them when they travel. It’s high time that the courts require the government to stop treating the border as a place where they can end-run the Constitution,” said EFF staff attorney Sophia Cope.

Below is a full list of the plaintiffs along with links to their individual stories, which are also collected here:

  • Ghassan and Nadia Alasaad are a married couple who live in Massachusetts, where he is a limousine driver and she is a nursing student.
  • Suhaib Allababidi, who lives in Texas, owns and operates a business that sells security technology, including to federal government clients.
  • Sidd Bikkannavar is an optical engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
  • Jeremy Dupin is a journalist living in Massachusetts.
  • Aaron Gach is an artist living in California.
  • Isma’il Kushkush is a journalist living in Virginia.
  • Diane Maye is a college professor and former captain in the U. S. Air Force living in Florida.
  • Zainab Merchant, from Florida, is a writer and a graduate student at Harvard University.
  • Akram Shibly is a filmmaker living in New York.
  • Matthew Wright is a computer programmer in Colorado.

The case, Alasaad v. Duke, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

Click here to view the complaint.

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Photo: Channing Johnson/ACLU

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