Traveler Complaints Reveal Abuses in Border Searches of Electronic Devices

December 22, 2017

Travelers entering the United States are often subjected to demeaning and gratuitously intrusive searches of their electronic devices, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University today revealed when it published a trove of documents acquired through a lawsuit seeking records regarding border agents’ searches of cellphones and laptops.

“Border agents have been given unchecked authority to search through travelers’ emails, text messages, and personal photographs, and these complaints show the unsettling result,” said Carrie DeCell, a staff attorney at the Knight Institute. “These searches raise serious concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, and government agents shouldn’t be conducting them without probable cause.”

In response to the Knight Institute’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the government released a 92-page spreadsheet containing over 400 traveler complaints submitted between Oct. 1, 2011 and April 4, 2017, roughly 240 of which involve searches of electronic devices. These complaints paint a troubling picture of the humiliating process that often awaits U.S. citizens, visa holders, and other travelers when they arrive at ports of entry to the United States.

“My family and I feel belittled, ashamed, humiliated and disgraced,” said one U.S. citizen traveler about a search at San Francisco Airport, in a complaint dated June 11, 2015.

In their often anguished complaints, travelers describe border agents making copies of, and even reading aloud from, the private contents of their phones, laptops, and diaries, and prying into sensitive information including a journalist’s interview notes and confidential attorney-client information. According to the complaints, border agents interrogated and harassed travelers about their sexual orientation, romantic relationships, gender identity, and political and religious beliefs. Several travelers, including U.S. citizens, report having been handcuffed, detained for hours, separated from their families, and in some cases denied entry without being provided adequate or any reason.

The First and Fourth Amendments normally bar the government from conducting intrusive searches without judicial oversight and probable cause, or at least individualized suspicion. However, news reports as well as government documents make clear that border agents conduct suspicionless searches thousands of times a year.

The Knight Institute’s FOIA lawsuit also sought records of agency action taken in response to traveler complaints. Homeland Security has sent boilerplate responses to many travelers, but thus far the agency has disclosed no evidence that agents who abused their authority were sanctioned for their conduct or that the alleged abuses were even investigated.

Read excerpts from complaints and the full complaints and responses.

Lawyers on the case include DeCell, Alex Abdo, Jameel Jaffer, and Katie Fallow from the Knight Institute, and Scott B. Wilkens and Michael Stewart from the law firm of Jenner & Block.

About the Knight Institute

The Knight First Amendment Institute is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization established by Columbia University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to defend the freedoms of speech and press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education.