US lawsuit seeks to halt snooping of travellers


NEW YORK: Civil rights lawyers sued the US Government to stop authorities from snooping in the laptops, cellphones and cameras of international travellers without probable cause.

The lawsuit was filed in US District Court in Brooklyn against the Department of Homeland Security as well as US customs and immigration authorities. The government did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The lawsuit says more than 6,500 people have had their electronic devices searched as they crossed US borders since October 2008. Nearly half of those searched were US citizens.

In May, a graduate student in Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal was detained for several hours as his electronic devices were searched, the suit says. The encounter badly frightened the student, according to the suit.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed the lawsuit on behalf of the National Press Photographers Association, criminal defense lawyers and the student: Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old French-American citizen whose laptop computer was confiscated at the Canadian border.

The civil rights groups said photographers regularly travel abroad with cameras, laptops and media storage devices to cover global news stories and rely on their ability to communicate confidentially with sources.

They said many of the defense lawyers have similar confidentiality concerns as they travel abroad with laptops, Blackberry cellphones and other devices.

The lawsuit says policies adopted by the government agencies permit the search of all electronic devices that “contain information,” including laptops, cameras, mobile phones, smartphones and data storage devices.

The policies are particularly invasive since electronic devices carry “vast amounts of personal and sensitive information that reveals a vivid picture of travelers’ personal and professional lives, including their intimate thoughts, private communications, expressive choices and privileged or confidential work product,” the lawsuit says.

ACLU staff attorney Melissa Goodman said the searches do not make people safer. “Americans do not surrender their privacy and free speech rights when they travel abroad,” she said. — AP

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