ACLU files lawsuit on border laptop searches

The civil liberties group wants to see details about laptop searches at U.S. borders

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit demanding that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) release details of its policy that allows the agency to search travelers' laptops at U.S. borders without suspicion of wrongdoing.

The ACLU's lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, is an effort to get CBP to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that the civil liberties group filed in June about the laptop-search policy. The agency has not supplied any information, although the FOIA law requires it to give a response within 30 days, said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group.

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The FOIA request and the lawsuit seek details about the laptop search policy, including how many laptops have been searched since the CBP instituted its search policy last year, Crump said. "Traveling with a laptop shouldn't mean the government gets a free pass to rifle through your personal papers," she said.

The ACLU and other civil liberties groups have complained that the CBP policy violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, protecting U.S. citizens against unreasonable search and seizure.

The ACLU also wants to know how many laptops and electronic devices CBP has seized, how long CBP has kept those devices, and statistics about the race and ethnicity of the people whose laptops have been seized, according to the ACLU's FOIA request.

One Muslim group complained [PDF] in April that CBP has unfairly targeted Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans for laptop searches.

"The goal is that the public should have enough information to evaluate the risks of crossing the border with a laptop," Crump said. "It would be helpful to the public if they could evaluate whether this policy makes Americans any safer."

The press office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, CBP's parent agency, didn't immediately respond to a request for comments on the ACLU lawsuit.

CBP has asserted that it can search all files, including financial documents and Web browsing history, on travelers' laptops and electronic devices "absent individualized suspicion." The agency does need probable cause that a crime has been committed to seize a device.

The CBP policy also allows the agency to conduct searches of "documents, books, pamphlets and other printed material, as well as computers, disks, hard drives and other electronic or digital storage devices," without suspicion of a crime.

Several Democratic members of the U.S. Congress have pushed for a change in the policy. The requested documents would be "enormously useful" for lawmakers debating the CBP policy, Crump said.

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