Government sued over electronics searches

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 27: A traveler walks past a newly-opened TSA Pre-check application center at Terminal C of the LaGuardia Airport on January 27, 2014 in New York City. Once approved, travelers can use special expidited Precheck security lanes. They can also leave on their shoes, light outerwear and belt, as well as keep their laptop and small containers of liquids inside carry-on luggage during security screening. The TSA plans to open more than 300 application centers across the country. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The U.S. government is being sued over its practice of searching laptops and cellphones at the border and in airports. Two advocacy groups say the searches are unconstitutional because modern electronic devices now carry troves of private personal and business information.

The Fourth Amendment requires law enforcement to get warrants for searches and seizures, but courts have made an exception at the border because of the government’s need to enforce immigration and customs laws and protect national security.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the America Civil Liberties Union say warrants should be required for the border searches. They filed their suit Wednesday on behalf of 10 American citizens and a lawful permanent resident who had their electronic devices searched by border agents. None were accused of wrongdoing.

Lawyers say Federal agents should not be allowed to search personal electronics – or seize them, if the owners refuse to submit to a search – because the devices carry so much sensitive information.

In the past, the government has defended the searches by saying they are comparatively rare. But the numbers are going up.  In the 2015 fiscal year, Customs and Border Protection searched the electronic devices of 8,503 international travelers. The number rose to 19,033 the next year. In the first half of the current fiscal year, there were 14,993 searches.

DHS officials have asserted that U.S. citizens and everyone else are subject to examination and search by customs officials, unless exempted by diplomatic status. The department says no court has concluded that border searches of electronic devices require a warrant. Searches, some random, have uncovered evidence of human trafficking, terrorism, child pornography, visa fraud, export controls breaches and intellectual property rights violations, according to the department.