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Random phone searches at US borders are illegal, judge rules

A Boston federal court has put a stop to suspicionless searches of travelers’ electronic devices in the US. 

Published onNovember 13, 2019

Travelling to and from the US anytime soon? There’s a smaller chance you’ll be subjected to random phone searches at the border. A Boston federal court has put a stop to suspicionless searches of travelers’ electronic devices in the US.

Random searches of phones and laptops have become quite rampant in the US. Last year, the US government conducted more than 33,000 searches of travelers’ devices. The number reflects a four-fold surge in the past three years. These random fishing expeditions are now deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

US Court: Police can’t force people to unlock their phone with biometrics

The federal ruling came as part of the Alasaad v. McAleenan‘ lawsuit. It was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and ACLU of Massachusetts on behalf of 11 travelers whose phones and laptops were searched without reason at US ports of entry.

The court says:

The CBP and ICE policies for basic and advanced searches, as presently defined, violate the Fourth Amendment to the extent that the policies do not require reasonable suspicion that the devices contain contraband for both such classes of non-cursory searches and/or seizure of electronic devices; and that the non-cursory searches and/or seizures of plaintiffs' electronic devices, without such reasonable suspicion, violated the Fourth Amendment.

US federal officials will now have to demonstrate individualized suspicion of illegal contraband to search electronic devices.

“This is a great day for travelers who now can cross the international border without fear that the government will, in the absence of any suspicion, ransack the extraordinarily sensitive information we all carry in our electronic devices,” said Sophia Cope, EFF Senior Staff Attorney.

It’s not clear for now whether this ruling applies to all travelers, or only to US citizens or residents. It’s also worth noting that the ruling does not require border officials to get a warrant for device searches. The ruling is likely to be appealed by the US government.

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