San Diego, California—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to further limit the government’s ability to conduct highly intrusive searches of electronic devices at the border by requiring federal agents to obtain a warrant if they want to access the contents of travelers’ phones.
“The Ninth Circuit four years ago issued an important ruling requiring officials to show they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to forensically search digital devices. While that was an improvement over the government’s prior practice of conducting suspicionless searches, the court didn’t go far enough,” said EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope. “We are now asking the Ninth Circuit to bar warrantless device searches at the border.”
“Our electronic devices contain texts, emails, photos, contact lists, work documents, and other communications that reveal intimate details of our private lives. Our privacy interests in this material is tremendous. Requiring a warrant is a critical step in making sure our Fourth Amendment protections survive into the digital age,” said Cope.
The Ninth Circuit is being asked to throw out evidence obtained through a warrantless forensic search of the defendant’s cell phone at the U.S.-Mexico border in southern California. The case, U.S. v. Cano, is a drug prosecution and the first before the Ninth Circuit since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that because devices hold “the privacies of life,” police need a warrant to search the phones of people who are arrested.
In an amicus brief filed today in U.S. v. Cano, EFF urged the court to recognize that people traveling through our international borders deserve the same privacy protections that the Supreme Court has extended to arrestees. The Ninth Circuit’s rulings apply to states in the west and southwest, several of whom share borders with Mexico and Canada,
Warrantless border searches of luggage have been allowed under an exception to the Fourth Amendment for routine immigration and customs enforcement. But since digital devices provide so much more highly personal, private information than what is traditionally carried in a suitcase, agents should be required to show a judge that they have probable cause to believe that the device contains evidence of a violation of the immigration or customs laws, EFF said in the brief.
Digital device searches at the border have more than tripled since the inauguration of President Trump. This increase, along with the increasing number of people who carry these devices while traveling, has highlighted the need for stronger privacy rights while crossing the U.S. border. Last year, EFF and ACLU filed a lawsuit in Boston against the federal government on behalf of 11 travelers whose smartphones and other electronic devices were searched without a warrant at the U.S. border.
“Digital devices differ wildly from luggage and other physical items a person carries across the border,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Adam Schwartz. “Now is the time to apply the full force of constitutional privacy protections to digital devices.”
For the brief:
For more on privacy at the border: