The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now facing a lawsuit brought on by 11 separate individuals alleging a violation of their rights after their personal phones were confiscated or searched at the border. The complaint stems from the fact that, according to the plaintiffs, their devices were taken from them and searched without a warrant – which they claim is unconstitutional. There is a border search exception which allows authorities at a federal level to conduct searches, including searches of a person’s personal devices, within 100 miles of a border without any such warrant. However, several plaintiffs claim that they have still not received their devices back after months of waiting. Although there are only 11 individuals involved in the current suit, some believe the searches represent a problem that runs much deeper, with over 15,000 such searches reportedly occurring throughout the first half of 2017. That’s trending up from 19,000 searches throughout the entire previous year and only 8,500 the in 2015.
As to the case itself, ten of the plaintiffs are U.S. citizens and the eleventh is a lawful permanent resident. Each reports a similar experience with DHS after traveling abroad. They include a military veteran, NASA engineer, two journalists, a computer programmer, and several people categorized by their representation as falling into minorities categories. The plaintiffs are being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. According to one of the plaintiffs, a U.S. citizen from Texas, he was stopped by Customs and Border Patrol back in late January after a business trip to Dubai. When he declined to unlock his personal device for the authorities, they confiscated both his personal phone and his business phone – the latter he had already allowed them to search. His business phone was eventually returned to him after two months of waiting, but he has still not received his personal phone.
As of this writing, not much else has been revealed about the case, which was filed with a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts. Aside from DHS, the suit reportedly also calls out the current Administration as having engaged in the warrantless search and seizure of property belonging to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who are protected under the constitution. With that said, the issue does not appear to be one divided along political lines. A piece of legislation was introduced back in April to institute a requirement for warrants when searching the smart devices or computers of U.S. citizens or permanent residents at the border. The legislation was put forward by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Rand Paul and carried a different exception only applicable in emergency situations. This case represents just one piece of a larger discussion about rights as they pertain to mobile devices, the internet, social media, and privacy.