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Privacy watchdogs challenge laptop seizures at US borders

6,671 travelers searched (so far)

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Privacy advocates have sued the Obama administration over its practice of seizing laptops, cell phones, and other devices at US borders and copying their contents even when the owner isn't suspected of wrongdoing.

In a complaint filed in US District Court in New York City on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argued that digital devices contain such highly personal information that they are protected by the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures. Because the data often contains unpublished pictures and information collected by journalists and scholars, the devices are also protected by First Amendment protections ensuring freedom of speech.

The complaint was filed on behalf of a variety of individuals, including Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old doctoral student, and a dual US-French citizen. In May, he was traveling by train from Montreal to New York when officials from the US Customs and Border Protection searched his laptop. One agent demanded to know why he had downloaded pictures depicting rallies held by the militant Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

He was handcuffed and detained in a holding cell for several hours. When officials returned his laptop 11 days later, Abidor was able to determine that they had rifled through personal photos, a chat transcript he had with his girlfriend, email correspondence, and class notes.

The complaint alleges that the search – and the threat of more to follow – requires him to warn sources that the information they provide him may be acquired by customs officials. “Mr. Abidor fears that this will discourage some interviewees from being candid or from sharing information or documents with him that they otherwise would have shared,” attorneys wrote.

Border agents searched digital devices of 6,671 travelers from October 2008 to June 2010, according to the ACLU. Almost 45 percent of those searched were US citizens. The ACLU has more here. ®

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