Border agents can’t search international travelers’ smartphones and other electronic devices without suspecting them of a crime, a federal district judge in Boston has ruled, The Wall Street Journal reports. In a 48-page decision in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. District Judge Denise Casper said the Fourth Amendment requires authorities to have at least a reasonable and individualized suspicion of criminal activity.
Judge Casper rejected the ACLU’s argument that border and customs agents need to meet the higher standard of showing probable cause to believe that a traveler’s device contains evidence of contraband before searching its contents. Casper said device searches should be treated differently from routine pat-downs and document inspections, which are considered acceptable incursions on privacy under constitutional case law. “Even under the border search exception, it is the privacy interests implicated by unfettered access to such a trove of personal information that must be balanced against the promotion of paramount governmental interests at the border,” the judge said in her ruling. The Associated Press, citing ACLU figures, reports that the number of electronic device searches at U.S. ports of entry has increased significantly. Last year, the government conducted more than 33,000 searches, almost four times the number from just three years prior. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that in Fiscal Year 2019, the department processed more than 414 million travelers at U.S. ports of entry. During that same period of time, it conducted 40,913 border searches of electronic devices, representing less than .01 percent of arriving international travelers.