US judge dismisses challenge to border laptop searches

The searches are rare and don't require reasonable suspicion, a federal judge said

U.S. Customs and Border Protection can search travelers' laptops and other electronic devices without a show of reasonable suspicion, according to a federal judge's dismissal of a 2010 lawsuit on Tuesday.

In its suit, the American Civil Liberties Union had argued that having border officials search the contents of a laptop violated the U.S Constitution unless the officials had a reasonable suspicion that the contents related to a crime. Judge Edward Korman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn, disagreed and threw out the suit. The ACLU said an appeal is being considered.

"We're disappointed in today's decision, which allows the government to conduct intrusive searches of Americans' laptops and other electronics at the border without any suspicion that those devices contain evidence of wrongdoing," ACLU attorney Catherine Crump said in a press release from the organization. Crump argued the case in 2011.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the suit on behalf of Pascal Abidor, a student with dual French and U.S. citizenship, and of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Press Photographers Association. In 2010, customs officials confiscated Abidor's laptop as he entered the country from Canada on a train trip from Montreal to New York. They searched the computer while detaining Abidor for several hours, then released him without charges.

Abidor, who said he was studying the modern history of Shiites in Lebanon, had downloaded photos of the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah on his computer. He let CBP conduct the search and provided his computer password. The government searched private material, including messages between Abidor and his girlfriend, and kept his data for further searches after giving back his laptop, the suit alleged.

Such searches are a particular concern for defense lawyers and journalists because they rely on the confidentiality of information to represent clients and to protect sources, the suit said.

In dismissing the suit, Judge Korman said CBP already has special procedures for those types of privileged content that require a show of suspicion. Border searches of electronic devices are rare, and many of them already are done with a show of reasonable suspicion, Judge Korman said.

"In sum, declaratory relief is not appropriate because it is unlikely that a member of the association plaintiffs will have his electronic device searched at the border, and it is far less likely that a forensic search would occur without reasonable suspicion," Korman wrote, according to a copy of the decision posted by the ACLU.

Though the suit had alleged 6,500 people's electronic devices were searched at U.S. borders between October 2008 and June 2010, that's out of 1.1 million people processed daily, according to CBP, the judge wrote. "Stated another way, there is less than a one in a million chance that a computer carried by an inbound international traveler will be detained," Korman wrote.

Korman also said border crossings are a special case for search protections because travelers can decide when and where they cross borders and what they are carrying when they do.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags American Civil Liberties UnionsecurityU.S. Department of Homeland Securitylegalprivacy

More about IDGLawson

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Stephen Lawson

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place