Woman sues feds over data retention after iPhone seized at border

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An American Muslim woman has filed suit after, she claims, agents at Newark Airport took her iPhone after she refused to unlock it. At issue is data that she believes the agents copied and retained, including photos of her in "a state of undress."

A woman named Rejhane Lazoja, a U.S. national, has filed a lawsuit against the federal government, alleging violations of her Fourth Amendment rights and seeking the return of her property.

In the suit, Lazoja says that last February, she and her young daughter landed at Newark after a nine-hour flight from Switzerland, after which she was questioned, searched, taken to a "small, windowless room," and asked at one point if she was ever a refugee.

Agents then asked her to unlock her iPhone 6 Plus, and when she refused, they took it from her. The suit alleges that the phone was not returned until 130 days later — when it was mailed to her attorney's office — and that the plaintiff believes the government has retained copies of the data.

As a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, the suit says, Lazoja's religious beliefs forbid her from being seen in a "state of undress" by men who are not family members. The data, she says, included photographs of her in such a state, as well as private communications with her legal counsel.

"At no time, not when Defendants' agents and employees seized Ms. Lazoja's cell phone, nor at any point in the over 150 days since, have Defendants articulated a reasonable suspicion for seizing the phone," says the suit. "Let alone probable cause, let alone produced a warrant to search or seize Plaintiff's phone and personal data."

The suit seeks the return of the data, an expungement of any copies of the data retained by the government, and disclosure of which third parties may have received copies of it. The suit does not appear to be seeking any monetary damages.

Defendants in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, include Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Neilsen, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin C. McAleenan and Director Adele Fasano, and three unnamed customs and border officers. Apple is not a party to the suit.