Can the government search your phone at the airport?

How much power does the government have to search your phone at the airport? It might be more than you think.

Police have to get a warrant or have probable cause to search your cell phone, but government agents don't need either to search your electronic devices at the border.

When you enter the country, the government has broad authority to search whatever you bring in. In Northern Virginia on Wednesday, a man tried to challenge that authority in federal court.

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Abdulkadir Dur is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia. He's suing the government after he was placed on a government watch list that subjects him to additional screening at the airport.

His lawyers say he got placed on the watch list after the government investigated a caravan of relief goods that were stolen from his company. Nur was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the effects of getting placed on the watch list have long outlasted the investigation.

"He was locked in a room. Officers, some who identified themselves and some who didn't, would ask him questions, invasive questions. Eventually, he would stop responding to those questions as is his right," says Justin Sadowsky, Council on American-Islamic Relations. "During the beginning, they did take his device and demand his password, and then they would just leave him in the room for several hours." 

The government disagrees with some characterizations of the seizures including the length of time Nur was detained. They emphasize that the government's power is at its peak at the international border in order to protect national security.

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The government also says customs officers have long been permitted to search devices without heightened suspicion, whether you're on a watch list or not. Nur argues that the government violated his right against unreasonable search and seizure.

Although details about getting placed on the watch list are kept secret for national security reasons, FOX 5 learned from a leaked intercept report that you can be placed on the watch list for innocent behavior such as being related to someone on the no-fly list. 

On Wednesday, Nur's lawyers said that isn't grounds for agents to go looking through someone's phone every time they cross the border.

The case will be allowed to go forward and the judge says he would issue his ruling as soon as he could.