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A surge in electronic device data searches at US border crossings brought about a lawsuit by a group of First Amendment attorneys against the US federal government.

The Knight First Amendment Institute (KFAI) at Columbia University filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), seeking “statistical, policy, and assessment records regarding the government’s searches” involving electronic devices, according to

The suit seeks a DHS database of border device searches, rules on searching journalists & civil rights audits. The group states that they filed a FOIA request on March 15. When the request was ignored, they filed suit in US District Court for the District of Columbia to access the information.

The KFAI filed the request after the release of findings of a dramatic increase in American citizens who had their electronic devices searched at border crossings.

According to data provided by the DHS, the report found searches of electronic devices carried out by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents grew five-fold in one year, from fewer than 5,000 searches in all of 2015 to nearly 25,000 in 2016.

CBP agents were reportedly demanding phones, laptops and other electronic devices to be handed over as well as pin numbers and passwords to social media accounts. Some citizens were even asked about their religion and ethnic origins.

Mary Ellen Callahan, former chief privacy officer at the Department of Homeland Security called the increase in searches “shocking,” and said the increase “was clearly a conscious strategy, that’s not happenstance”.

With that information, agents have also been able to access emails, photos, text messages, and other personal and private information. Some agents have even made digital copies of the content on electronic devices.

These searches can be performed within 100 miles of the US border on anyone without any suspicion the person has done anything wrong. The agents can also hold electronic devices for five days without providing any justification.

These types of electronic searches are meant to be performed on individuals with security concerns, and not as routine searches, says Jayson Ahern, who served in the CBP under both Bush and Obama.