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US Homeland Security Sued Over Warrantless Search of Electronics

FILE - U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Kevin Corsaro speaks with a motorist entering the United States, June 6, 2006. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency says it has increased its searches of electronics.

U.S. human rights groups are suing the federal government over warrantless searches of phones and computers at the U.S. border.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation announced Wednesday that they have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of 10 American citizens and one U.S. permanent resident whose smartphones and laptops were searched without warrants.

Several, but not all, of those named in the suit are Muslims. One of them said he was physically restrained while being questioned. None of them have been accused of wrongdoing.

The lawsuit calls for stricter legal guidelines for searches of electronic devices.

“People now store their whole lives, including extremely sensitive personal and business matters, on their phones, tablets and laptops, and it’s reasonable for them to carry these with them when they travel,” said EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope in a statement.

“It’s high time that the courts require the government to stop treating the border as a place where they can end-run the Constitution.”

The suit says the number of such searches has grown sharply in recent years and will likely hit 30,000 this year, compared with 8,503 in 2015 and 19,033 in 2016.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which conducts the searches at airports and U.S. borders, says the increase is driven by its mission “to protect the American people and enforce the nation’s laws in this digital age.”

But the rights organizations say that argument doesn’t hold water.

“The government cannot use the border as a dragnet to search through our private data,” ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari said in a statement.

“The Fourth Amendment (of the U.S. Constitution which protects against unreasonable searches) requires that the government get a warrant before it can search the contents of smartphones and laptops at the border.”