Civil liberties groups sues over US electronics searches

Claim DHS didn't respond to FOIA request; searches of phones, other devices also at issue

Two civil liberties groups last week filed a lawsuit in a federal court in California in response to complaints from travelers of excessive screenings at border-entry points, including inspections of the data on laptops, cell phones and other electronic devices.

The lawsuit was filed in US District Court in San Francisco by the Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In the legal filing, the two groups ask the court to order the US Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) division to release records relating to its policies and procedures on the "questioning, search and inspection" of travelers entering or returning to the US at various ports of entry.

The ALC and the EFF, which are both based in San Francisco, said in a joint statement that they filed the suit under the Freedom of Information Act after the DHS didn't respond to a FOIA request the two groups submitted last October. They added that they had requested the information from the DHS in response to increasing allegations of "excessive or repeated" screenings by CBP agents.

For instance, the ALC received more than 20 complaints over the past year from individuals who said they had been "grilled about their families, religious practices, volunteer activities, political beliefs, or associations" when returning to the U.S. from trips overseas, according to the statement.

Some of the people also claimed that CBP staffers inspected and sometimes copied the contents of their laptop files and cell phone directories without providing any reason for doing so, the ALC and the EFF said. The groups are seeking the information about the screening policies so they can assess whether they should take any legal or legislative actions to try to force the CBP to change its procedures.

DHS officials referred an inquiry seeking comment about the lawsuit and the earlier FOIA request to the CBP's press office, which didn't immediately return a phone call placed late in the afternoon Eastern time.

In an interview, Shirin Sinnar, a staff attorney at the ALC, said that in all the cases of electronic devices being inspected that the group knows of, the searches appear to have been done with little obvious cause and very little explanation from the CBP.

"In one case, an individual told us his computer was taken for about 45 minutes," Sinnar said. "They told him that was how long it took to download the files from his computer." Some people complained about CBP agents looking at their browser caches to see which Web sites they had visited recently, she added. Others said they weren't told what information, if any, was being copied and for what purpose.

One of the people who complained to the ALC was Kamran Habib, a software engineer who lives in San Jose and works for a technology vendor that he asked not be identified. Habib said he had been subject to such searches on three occasions last year. Two of the searches took place in the space of two weeks, when Habib was re-entering the US from Canada after separate business trips.

On all three occasions, Habib said, CBP officials took his laptop and didn't return it until the screening was completed -- a process that typically took about two hours. "They haven't informed me what they did [with the laptop], so I really don't know," he said.

He added that when he asked why his computer was being inspected, CBP officials told him it was because they wanted to make sure the laptop didn't have any pirated content on it. Now, Habib said, he clears all of the personal information from his laptop before traveling outside of the US

The FOIA request and lawsuit by the ALC and the EFF aren't the first attempt to get the DHS to disclose its policies regarding such border searches. The Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) filed a similar FOIA request last July, specifically looking for information about the government's policies on searching laptops and other electronic devices. The DHS did respond to that request, but the document that the ACTE received was heavily redacted.

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