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Fighting Government Intrusions on Privacy and Free Speech at the Border

The dramatic increase in warrantless searches of digital devices at the U.S. border has captured the attention of the public and the press. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has violated not only the Fourth Amendment, but also its own procedures when conducting these searches. CDT is fighting these intrusions with the goal of protecting the First and Fourth Amendment rights of every American.

In February 2019, CDT quickly pushed back when Congress proposed border security funding for a “smart wall.” We pointed out that the systems CBP already used to monitor, identify, and track individuals, such as facial recognition technology and automated license plate readers, are overly invasive. Communities near the border bear the brunt of these extra surveillance measures, and should not be subject to persistent, warrantless monitoring.

Not two months later, reports revealed that the Department of Homeland Security was targeting and keeping detailed records on activists, journalists, and lawyers in contact with asylum seekers at the border. CDT rapidly organized a coalition of over 100 organizations spanning the political spectrum, which issued a letter urging DHS to cease such activity because it chills exercise of the right to freedom of expression and association.

CDT also warned about the dangers of using social media information to screen individuals seeking admission to the U.S. Just before a Palestinian freshman admitted to Harvard College arrived in the U.S. for the 2019-20 school year, the U.S. government revoked his visa. He was forced to return to Lebanon after being detained and allegedly interrogated about his friends’ social media activity. We organized a coalition of 40 organizations that demanded that DHS and CBP clarify their policies and do more to respect immigrants’ and visitors’ rights to freedom of expression and association. CDT also pointed out that social media screening at the border of the U.S. paves the way for other countries to screen the social media of Americans when they seek admission to other countries.

In December 2019, CDT assisted a successful legislative push from Sen. Patrick Leahy to compel the U.S. government to disclose information about electronic device searches conducted at the border. This win for transparency and accountability will arm Congress with information about how CBP wields its discretion at ports of entry, who its searches target, and how data seized from devices is shared.

2019 Annual Report