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Federal Judge rules on Electronic Device Searches at US Border

A case was raised against border officers conducting suspicionless searches

Published on November 14, 2019

Earlier this week, a US Judge ruled in a case which could have implications for Americans and other citizens who are traveling to the US.

The case, brought by 11 travelers, argued that border officials need to be able to cite specific suspicions before searching a passenger's electronic devices, including smart phones, tablet computers and laptops. According to data from the American Civil Liberties Union, under the Presidency of Donald Trump, the number of electronic device searches has grown from approximately 8,500 in 2015 to 30,000 in 2018.

In the ruling, US District Judge Denise J Casper writes "Agents and officials must have reasonable suspicion to conduct any search of entrants’ electronic devices under the ‘basic’ searches and ‘advanced’ searches as now defined by the CBP and ICE policies." Judge Casper went on to explain that "This requirement reflects both the important privacy interests involved in searching electronic devices and the Defendant’s governmental interests at the border."

Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, responded to the verdict saying "This ruling significantly advances Fourth Amendment protections for millions of international travelers who enter the United States every year".

Although Judge Casper's ruling didn't go as far as to require search warrants for checking devices, confirming the requirement for a specific reason for a search offers some protection for overseas Americans and international travelers visiting the US. For example, in 2012, the Journal of Accountancy reported that overseas US taxpayers were being questioned at the US border over back taxes. Earlier this year, Tech Crunch explained how border checks were being used to enforce immigration rules.

With overseas Americans in particular being affected by increasing checks and data gathering, both for reasons of citizenship, tax and FATCA, this ruling is an important step.


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