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US Border Officers Humbled by Fourth Amendment Ruling

Privacy groups are celebrating after a federal court ruled that suspicion-free searches of travellers’ electronic devices at the US border are unconstitutional.

The original lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and ACLU of Massachusetts, on behalf of 11 travellers whose smartphones and laptops were searched without suspicion on entry to the US.

According to the Boston court’s ruling, Customs and Border Control (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers must now demonstrate suspicion of “illegal contraband” before being able to search an individual’s device.

According to EFF, searches at US ports have rocketed recently. It claimed that CBP carried out more than 33,000 last year, nearly four times the number from three years previously.

Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, argued that travellers can now travel to the US without fear that the government will impinge on their privacy.  

“This ruling significantly advances Fourth Amendment protections for millions of international travellers who enter the United States every year,” she added. “By putting an end to the government’s ability to conduct suspicionless fishing expeditions, the court reaffirms that the border is not a lawless place and that we don’t lose our privacy rights when we travel.”

The EFF pointed to several cases where border guards had apparently abused their powers to search travellers coming into the US.

This includes one example where an officer rifled through privileged attorney-client communication on an individual’s electronic device, and another alleged case where a Harvard freshman was denied entry after the officer noted social media posts from his friends critical of the government.

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