Seeking Accountability for Spike in Phone Seizures, Civil Rights Group Files Suit Against CBP

Posted on March 29, 2017

UPDATE: A new piece by Mother Jones reports that, in response to CBP’s and the Department of Homeland Security’s failure to respond to requests for statistics on the searches the agencies conduct, Senator Ron Wyden has announced plans to file legislation that would require officials in both agencies to secure warrants before searching or accessing the contents of cell phones or computers. Senator Wyden filed a request with the two agencies over a month ago asking them to disclose the precise number of compelled cell phone and computer searches conducted, but they have so far refused to comply. In the hopes of stemming the increase in such searches at borders, Senator Wyden announced that he would put forward a bill which would make up for the lack of Fourth Amendment protections at the US border, in accordance with court rulings, by specifically requiring law enforcement personnel operating at borders or ports of entry to obtain a warrant before compelling travelers to unlock and divulge the contents of their electronic devices. 

On Monday, the Knight First Amendment Institute filed suit against CBP and ICE, with the aim of identifying policies or directives which may have resulted in the precipitous rise in cell phone and laptop searches and seizures at US ports of entry. The Knight Institute, a Columbia University-based civil rights organization, had previously made Freedom of Information Act requests into documents that could shed light on CBP and ICE practices which led to the sharp uptick in agents forcing travelers to decrypt and unlock their devices, but the requests were denied, leading the group to step up their efforts to compel transparency by suing the agencies in question.

At present, 2017 is is on track to reach a record number of border searches of cell phones and computers, as CBP searched more devices in February of this year than in the entirety of 2015. US courts have held that Fourth Amendment protections of persons and effects does not extend to border areas or the jurisdiction of CBP, but agency policies still ostensibly regulate and prescribe the circumstances and manner in which such searches are conducted. In their transparency suit, the Knight Institute hopes to unearth precisely these policies to determine precisely on what authority the capacity for border searches, and their expansion, rests. 

You can find the full story from the Intercept here.