It was supposed to be a simple day trip to Niagara Falls. Little did he know the visit might land him in prison for the next 100 years.
Ali Saboonchi was returning from the Canadian side of the falls with his wife in 2012 when he was detained by customs agents at the U.S. border. The agents eventually let the Maryland man go, but not before seizing his electronic devices: an iPhone, an Android phone and a USB flash drive.
At a special facility in Baltimore nearly 400 miles away, officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement made a copy of the drives and performed what a judge later called an invasive forensic search using “specialized software.”
In the devices’ storage was what U.S. officials say is evidence of a plot to violate U.S.-Iranian trade restrictions, according to federal court documents. Now Saboonchi, who was allegedly involved in the plot, faces four counts of illegal export and one count of conspiracy.
The case against Saboonchi, a U.S. citizen, opens a new chapter in the ongoing debate about digital privacy and law enforcement just weeks after a major Supreme Court ruling held that police must obtain a warrant before accessing a suspect’s cellphone. But it also draws attention to the nearly unlimited ability of border patrol agents to perform warrantless searches of Americans’ digital lives, based on little more than a hunch.