Monday, March 27, 2017

Warrantless Searches Of U.S. Citizens Under Scrutiny

Escalating concerns about customs officials demanding access to travelers’ cellphones, tablets and laptops have prompted a leading free speech watchdog to take the government to court, to disclose its rules for digital privacy at the border.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University has filed a freedom of information lawsuit seeking to obtain the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) rules for “suspicionless” searches of mobile devices from US citizens and non-citizens alike.  The lawsuit seeks internal DHS directives for compelling travelers to surrender their devices; data establishing the frequency with which they occur;  procedures on what is done with the information stored on those devices, particularly when the devices belong to first amendment-protected professionals such as journalists; and any privacy or anti-discrimination assessment DHS has performed to audit its policies.

Concern about the device searches pre-date the Trump administration. DHS first began permitting warrantless searches of U.S. citizens at the border back in 2009.  The searches intensified toward the end of Obama’s tenure (fewer than 5,000 searches in 2015, growing to 25,000 in 2016).

The Trump administration’s focus on border security has intensified the trend. After the White House introduced executive orders cracking down on immigration and foreign travel, particularly among Hispanics and Muslims, DHS conducted 5,000 device searches in February alone.


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