Exclusive: growing number of reports raises concerns US government may be increasing surveillance and privacy violations at airports
Sam Levin in San Francisco
There are a growing number of reports of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) searching the electronic devices of passengers on domestic flights in the US, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has sued the federal agency for records.
The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a lawsuit against the TSA on Monday demanding that the government disclose its policies for searching the computers and cellphones of domestic travelers, arguing that anecdotal accounts have raised concerns about potential privacy invasions.
“We’ve received reports of passengers on purely domestic flights having their phones and laptops searched, and the takeaway is that TSA has been taking these items from people without providing any reason why,” the staff attorney Vasudha Talla told the Guardian. “The search of an electronic device has the potential to be highly invasive and cover the most personal details about a person.”
A TSA spokesman, Matt Leas, declined to comment on the lawsuit but said: “TSA does not search the contents of electronic devices.”
Over the past year, civil liberties groups have repeatedly raised concerns about US border agents expanding the invasive searches of international travelers’ phones. Some travelers reported authorities demanding they unlock their devices and allow officials to review text messages, social media accounts, photos and other private information – without warrants or reasonable suspicion. Now, there are questions about whether similar practices could be happening for passengers traveling within the US, raising fears that the government may be increasing surveillance and privacy violations at airports.
“It speaks to a growing attempt by the government to investigate individuals not based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion, but perhaps based on impermissible factors,” said Talla.
The ACLU of Northern California had not previously received reports of these kinds of domestic searches, but recently learned of a handful of cases, said Talla, who said the ACLU did not have specific data to share.
It just feels like an invasion of privacy, especially when they are not telling you what the problem is
There are no clear patterns in the searches that people have described to the ACLU, though in each case, the TSA has not explained its justification to passengers, who have typically experienced the searches while going through security before boarding flights, Talla said. The ACLU in California has not heard of specific cases of the TSA requiring domestic fliers to unlock their devices, but last year, numerous reports emerged that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would not let travelers enter the US without granting the agents access to devices.
When devices are unlocked, “they are really able to access a person’s entire life that is on the phone as well as using the device to access what is on the cloud”, Talla said.
One woman who shared her story with the ACLU told the Guardian that in the last year, she had twice had her electronics searched while flying within California. The 64-year-old, who works in the not-for-profit sector and requested anonymity for fear that she could face further scrutiny from TSA, said that on one occasion last year, TSA agents pulled her aside to pat her down multiple times and eventually asked to see both her iPhones – a work and personal one.
The agents did not ask her to unlock the phones, but took them for at least 10 minutes out of her view, she said, adding that she quickly became distraught.
“I no longer had my phones, so there was no one I could contact,” she said, adding, “It just feels like an invasion of privacy, especially when they are not telling you what the problem is.”
The woman said on a recent trip, the TSA also briefly took her laptop, which was password protected.
“If somebody is suspecting you of doing something wrong or some kind of crime, you should be told what it is. You should be able to defend yourself,” she added.
Under Donald Trump, Border Patrol has escalated its searches in areas far from the border. CBP has also claimed it has the authority to conduct warrantless searches of electronic devices at international border crossings, without probable cause, sparking an ACLU challenge.
In 2015, CBP conducted 5,000 searches of electronic devices in airports – a number that increased to 30,000 searches last year, the ACLU noted.
In October 2017, the TSA announced it would be heightening screening procedures of domestic passengers’ devices, including tablets and e-readers, but it has not released any policies or procedures governing these searches, the ACLU said.
Leas said he could not comment on whether there was a formal TSA policy for searches of electronics.
Talla said: “These are materials that should not be terribly difficult to track down,” adding: “We’re just not clear what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”
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