ACLU Sues TSA Over Its Warrantless Searches of Electronic Devices

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Northern California has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Monday, over its alleged practices of searching the electronic devices of passengers traveling on domestic flights.

“The federal government’s policies on searching the phones, laptops, and tablets of domestic air passengers remain shrouded in secrecy,” ACLU Foundation of Northern California attorney Vasudha Talla remarked in a blog post.

The lawsuit, which is directed toward the TSA field offices in San Francisco and its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, specifically asks the TSA to hand over records related to its policies, procedures, and/or protocols pertaining to the search of electronic devices.

This lawsuit comes after a number of reports came in pertaining to the warrantless searches of electronic devices belonging to airline passengers flying domestically within the United States. The ACLU also wants to know what equipment the TSA uses to search, examine, and extract any data from travelers’ devices, as well as what kind of training TSA officers receive in screening and searching the devices.

“TSA is searching the electronic devices of domestic passengers, but without offering any reason for the search,” Talla pointed out.

“We don’t know why the government is singling out some passengers, and we don’t know what exactly TSA is searching on the devices. Our phones and laptops contain very personal information, and the federal government should not be digging through our digital data without a warrant.”

The ACLU says it first filed FOIA requests back in December, but the TSA “subsequently improperly withheld the requested records,” the ACLU wrote in a blog post Monday.

Although the TSA did announce heightened screening procedures of domestic passengers’ electronic devices, including tablets and e-readers, in October 2017, it did not provide the public with any information regarding its policies or procedures governing searches of electronic devices for domestic flight passengers.

The federal government has, however, published policies regarding the search and seizure of electronic devices at the border, including international airports. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) claims the authority to conduct warrantless searches of electronic devices at international border crossings without probable cause to justify the search. That practice is also being challenged by the national ACLU in court.

CBP conducted 5,000 searches of electronic devices in airports in 2015. That number has subsequently skyrocketed to 30,000 searches in 2017.

The complaint, filed March 12 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, is available for viewing here.