ACLU of Northern California Lawsuit Demands Information on TSA Searches of Domestic Airline Passengers’ Digital Devices

March 12, 2018 – The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit today demanding government documents about Transportation Security Administration (TSA) searches of electronic devices belonging to people traveling on domestic flights.

“The federal government’s policies on searching the phones, laptops, and tablets of domestic air passengers remain shrouded in secrecy,” said Vasudha Talla, Staff Attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California.

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The lawsuit seeks records from the TSA field office in San Francisco, California and the TSA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. In particular, the lawsuit seeks records related to policies, procedures, or protocols regarding the search of passengers’ electronic devices; equipment used to search, examine, or extract data from passengers’ devices; and training of the officers conducting the screenings and searches of electronic devices.

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California first sought this information through FOIA requests submitted to TSA on December 20, 2017. TSA has subsequently improperly withheld the requested records.

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

TSA announced heightened screening procedures of domestic passengers’ electronic devices, including tablets and e-readers, in October of 2017. TSA has not made publicly available any policies or procedures governing searches of electronic devices for passengers taking domestic flights.

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 support the search. That practice is being challenged by the national ACLU. CBP conducted 5,000 searches of electronic devices in airports in 2015. That number has ballooned to 30,000 searches in 2017.

Today’s lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

The complaint is available here.