US sued over border searches of phones and computers

An international traveler leaves the Customs and Immigration area of Dulles International Airport (IAD) outside the US capital, in June 2017 (AFP Photo/PAUL J. RICHARDS) (AFP)

Washington (AFP) - US rights groups sued the government Wednesday over the increasing use of warrantless searches of cellphones and computers of travelers, including American citizens, arriving at US borders from abroad.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the Department of Homeland Security and two immigration agencies for searching the personal electronics of 10 US citizens and one permanent resident as they were returning to the country.

Several but not all of those named in the suit were Muslims, and all complained of being pressured -- and in one case physically forced -- to give phones to border officers for examination.

In several cases the devices were kept for several months before being returned, according to the suit.

None of those subjected to the inspections were accused of any crime or wrongdoing.

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

"The Fourth Amendment (of the US Constitution) requires that the government get a warrant before it can search the contents of smartphones and laptops at the border."

The groups said that US Customs and Border Protection conducted more than 15,000 searches of personal electronics in the first half of 2017, compared to 8,503 in 2015 and 19,033 in 2016.

"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," said EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope in the statement.

"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."

Neither DHS nor CBP had an immediate comment on the suit, which was filed in Massachusetts federal court.