Will your smartphone be searched at the border if you travel outside the U.S.?

At Blue Jersey, we’ve always believed warrantless reading of devices, including cell phones, was an unacceptable intrusion and threat to innocent people suddenly put under suspicion by the full weight of the federal government. We had it in New Jersey, when Chris Christie was the feds’ top lawman in Jersey. And now, says ACLU, we have to worry about it again. Still.

Back in 2009, during the Christie campaign, we were watching how he had transacted the George W. Bush Justice Dept’s Big Brother is watching you mantra, when he was Bush’s guy in Jersey. Oh we tried to warn y’all so hard about the kind of man NJ was about to elect. And we always thought the government’s warrantless tracking of New Jerseyans – using their own cell phones – was a BFD, and represented a threat to privacy of people neither charged nor suspected, and all under the name of fighting “terrorism”.

Click to listen

[Flashback! – Blue Jersey Radio circa 2009, our interview with Catherine Crump, lead ACLU attorney on the FOIA lawsuit that brought to light the Christie-authorized tracking of New Jerseyans – with BJ alums Jeff Gardner, Jason Springer & Adam Lambert.] 

Today, ACLU’s national HQ announced they are fighting a rising practice of the federal government demanding to search smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices at the borders of the United States, joining Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and a state ACLU in that effort.  All of the plaintiffs had this happen returning from travel abroad.

The daughter of one of my best friends is a freshman at McGill University in Montreal. She’s an American, one of hundreds at McGill. My friend will be driving up to visit her kid in a few days. Will she have to surrender her phone? Her laptop? Her passwords? ACLU says none of their clients were accused of any wrongdoing, or given any valid explanation for why this happened to them. ACLU:

The government says it can search our devices for no reason at all, without a warrant or any suspicion whatsoever that a person has violated immigration or customs laws. Under separate policies that date from 2009 — when the smartphone era was still in its infancy — officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can probe the contents of your smartphone for hours while you wait. They also have the option of downloading and saving all of the data on your phone for later review. [snip]

The frequency of device searches at the border has spiked recently. According to CBP data, the number of searches grew from 8,503 in fiscal year 2015 to 19,033 in 2016 — an increase of almost 125 percent. And officers have already carried out nearly 15,000 searches in the first half of fiscal year 2017, putting CBP on pace to conduct about 30,000 searches for the year.

As I was writing this up, somebody sent me this troubling new development: Discover Card is now asking cardholders to update their profiles with information about their citizenship.

There are better ways to fight terrorism and to protect Americans than this. Thank you, ACLU, for reminding us of exactly what it is that we’re protecting when we – fairly – protect our borders and our people. And yeah, I live with a board member of ACLU-NJ. I’d be writing about this anyway.


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