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ACLU Sues Over Digital Border Searches

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Newscom / Sam Javanrouh

The American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Layers (NACDL) announced on Tuesday that they filed a lawsuit against the policy, arguing that Americans "do not surrender their privacy and free speech rights when they travel abroad."

DHS policy says that electronic devices such as laptops, cameras and cell phones can be searched as a matter of course, and that the border agents can copy the contents of the devices in order to continue searching them once the traveler has been allowed to enter the U.S. -- even if the traveler is not suspected of any wrongdoing. Information obtained by the ACLU indicated that over 6,600 travelers -- nearly half of whom are U.S. citizens -- had their electronic devices searched at the border between Oct. 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010.

"These days, almost everybody carries a cell phone or laptop when traveling, and almost everyone stores information they wouldn't want to share with government officials - from financial records to love letters to family photos," said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. "Innocent Americans should not be made to feel like the personal information they store on their laptops and cell phones is vulnerable to searches by government officials any time they travel out of the country."

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The suit was filed on behalf of The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and 26-year-old Pascal Abidor, a dual U.S.-French citizen who had his laptop searched and confiscated at the Canadian border in May 2010. An ACLU video about Abidor is embedded below.

Late Update: "While we cannot comment on pending litigation, searches of laptops and other electronic media during secondary inspection are a targeted tool that CBP uses in limited circumstances to ensure that dangerous people and unlawful goods do not enter our country," Matthew Chandler of DHS said in an e-mail. "The Department has been transparent about these searches - the policies themselves, as well as a privacy impact assessment of the policies, are available on DHS.gov."

According to a DHS press release issued last year, between Oct. 1, 2008, and Aug. 11, 2009, customs agents encountered more than 221 million travelers at U.S. ports of entry but made just 1,000 laptop searches, 46 of which they said were in-depth.