Balance has to be found between collective security and individual privacy

Recent documents obtained by The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University from the Department of Homeland Security and published by The New York Times are adding heat to the debate regarding collective security and individual privacy.

The documents detail hundreds of accounts from travelers, both American and foreign citizens, who were subject to the searching of their personal devices including cell phones, laptops, and tablets upon entering the United States without a warrant or sustainable reason to.

Many of these people were compelled to file complaints due to their feelings of violation and the misconduct displayed by several border agents. A number of travelers believed they were targeted due to their race and others had inappropriate comments made about the contents on their devices. In some instances, travelers were detained for hours, causing them to miss their flights.

In 2014, an American citizen, who has family in Iran, stated that he and has wife have been questioned and had their electronics searched by agents on multiple occasions. He later went on to say, “It is very demeaning and degrading to feel as though I am being targeted because I am Muslim and not Caucasian.”

In 2016, a British citizen had his phone confiscated upon arriving in Detroit. He stated the agent opened every message that was sent by and to him. On top of that, the agent looked through his galleries, some of which had intimate photos of his wife. The citizen stated “the officer in question was laughing and smirking the whole time while violating my rights.”

A Greek citizen experienced a similar situation, also in 2016. An agent had taken her phone to be searched. The woman, who was in emotional distress, stated she was told by another agent to “stop crying and be quiet.” When the first agent returned with her phone, he referenced specific photos of her he had seen and told her she looked “super fit.” She found his behavior to be inappropriate.

Upon hearing such stories, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union decided to file a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security with the goal of preventing border agents from searching through personal devices without a warrant.

While certain precautions must be taken in order to ensure security, the most intimate details of people’s private lives should not be stripped bare without a fair reason to do so. In the case that there is an absolute need to search through personal devices, the process has to be conducted in a professional manner. Based on these accounts, border agents have failed to do that in the past.

You simply cannot predict whether a traveler poses a threat based on the color of their skin. It’s unfair of border agents to assume Muslims or people of color are plotting to commit heinous crimes. Not only does this bring public humiliation to the individuals in question, but it also violates the Fourth Amendment. Unless criminal activity is suspected, there is no reason for agents to have access to such sensitive information.

Digital strip searches are being unjustly conducted on travelers and it has to stop. Border agents should not be given the undisputed power to hold the lives of citizens in the very palm of their hands.