A lawsuit by a legal watchdog was filed Monday against the U.S. government over the surge in warrantless searches of laptops and cellphones of travelers to the U.S., including citizens, which has amounted to more than 5,000 searches in February alone and seems to disproportionately target Muslims and those traveling from Muslim-majority countries.
The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed the lawsuit in which documents show that the numbers of those who had their phones searched spiked from 5,000 in 2015 to almost 25,000 in 2016. In February alone 5,000 searches were conducted.
The suit is asking the government to reveal the number of searches by ports, the number of U.S. citizens targeted as well as the country of origin of the travelers who were searched.
“These searches are extremely intrusive, and government agents shouldn’t be conducting them without cause,” Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s executive director, said in a press release.
“Putting this kind of unfettered power in the hands of border agents invites abuse and discrimination and will inevitably have a chilling effect on the freedoms of speech and association.”
The news comes just weeks after an NBC News investigation revealed the data cited in the lawsuit and reported on one of the searches in which a Muslim-American man was held in a chokehold for refusing to give the password for his phone.
Akram Shibly and his partner Kelly McCormick were asked once before to provide the passwords for their cellphones and that was the reason Shibly attempted to resist the request by airport officers the second time.
“People today store their most intimate information on their electronic devices, reflecting their thoughts, explorations, activities and associations,” the lawyers wrote in the compliant according to the Associated Press.
“Subjecting that information to unfettered government scrutiny invades the core of individual privacy and threatens free inquiry and expression.”
The government argues that constitutional privacy laws do not apply at ports of entry. Some of the cases have involved journalists whose laptops and phones could contain sensitive information about sources they do not wish to reveal.
An Intercept report on the lawsuit pointed to a Canadian journalist who was detained for six hours last year before being denied entry to the U.S. after refusing to unlock devices containing sensitive information.
Rights activists worry that border officers are disproportionately targeting Muslims with those invasive searches. The NBC investigation focused on 25 people and found that 23 of them were Muslims.
The practice is nothing new and has been in place since the administration of George W. Bush and continued under the Obama administration, with searches targeting specific individuals.
However, the apparent excessive use of the searches by the new administration shines the spotlight on the Islamophobic and anti-immigration policies of President Donald Trump, who promised during his campaign to ban all Muslims from entering the country and has already, in less than two months in office, issued two travel bans that target Muslims-majority countries.