Border agents want to a search traveler’s laptop and phone? Get a warrant – Los Angeles Times

American travelers returning to the United States probably understand that customs officials might search their luggage looking for contraband or weapons. But many would be shocked to learn that agents also have been inspecting the contents of smartphones and laptops, devices that can contain a vast quantity of potentially sensitive personal information. And in addition to poking their noses into personal texts, emails and photos, agents can use whatever they find in such a spontaneous search to bring charges against the device’s owner, even if the allegations had nothing to do with smuggling, terrorism or any border-related crime.

Last week 11 U.S. citizens or permanent residents who have been subjected to warrantless searches filed a lawsuit alleging violations of their 1st and 4th Amendment rights. The suit, filed by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues persuasively that customs agents should have to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before searching travelers’ devices.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, agents searched the electronic devices of 14,993 arriving international travelers in the first six months of fiscal year 2017. That is a troubling number even if, as the agency notes, it involves less than 1% of the people arriving in the U.S.

Historically the courts have given customs officials broad powers to engage in border searches, noting the government’s strong interest in protecting its “territorial integrity.” In a 2004 case, the Supreme Court said that “the expectation of privacy is less at the border than it is in the interior.”

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