ACLU Foundation of Northern California v. TSA (Electronic Searches)

Closed Case
Mar 12, 2018

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People waiting in line for security screening at an airport

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit on March 12, 2018 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. 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 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.

The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. The TSA ultimately provided a letter stating that it does not conduct device searches and that its personnel abide by TSA Standard Operating Procedures that do not allow device searches of passengers. 

Learn more

ACLU of Northern California Lawsuit Demands Information on TSA Searches of Domestic Airline Passengers’ Digital Devices (Mar. 12, 2018)

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