Rights organizations sue over border laptop searches

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Civil rights groups have teamed up with press photographers and a university student to challenge the government's right to search travelers' laptops at national borders.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have filed a lawsuit challenging the policy, which they says has resulted in searches of around 6,600 travelers between October 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010. Nearly half were American citizens.

"These days, almost everybody carries a cellphone 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," says Catherine Crump, 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."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the National Press Photographers Association, NACDL itself and Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old dual French-American citizen who had his laptop searched and confiscated at the Canadian border.

Members of both NACDL and NPPA say they've been subjected to border searches, interfering with their work.

Abidor fell foul of the policy when traveling from Montreal to New York on an Amtrak train in May. He was questioned, handcuffed, taken off the train and kept in a holding cell for several hours before being released without charge.

When his laptop was returned 11 days later, there was evidence that many of his personal files, including research, photos and chats with his girlfriend, had been searched.

"As an American, I've always been taught that the Constitution protects me against unreasonable searches and seizures. But having my laptop searched and then confiscated for no reason at all made me question how much privacy we actually have," he says.