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Cellphone searches by US border agents are skyrocketing, data shows

The Peach Arch border crossing, which bisects Surrey, BC and Blaine, Washington.


United States Border officers are searching border crossers’ cellphones at a heightened rate, according to data released by the US Department of Homeland Security, with 5,000 device searches conducted in the month of February alone, more than all cellphone searches conducted in the year 2015.

Part of a more aggressive approach being practiced by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, the “detaining” of cellphones is said to have become much more prevalent since the election of Donald Trump. The new report by NBC News states that CBP officers are asking travellers to hand over their phones and either supply their passwords or unlock their phones or else risk being turned away —or worse. One man interviewed for the report recounted being tackled by three officers and put in a chokehold when he refused to give up his password.

“The shackles are off,” said Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, to NBC News. “We see individual officers and perhaps supervisors as well pushing those limits, exceeding their authority and violating people’s rights.”

While the US Constitution makes the searching of cellphones and other personal electronic devices prohibited without reasonable suspicion, actions taken by government officials at US borders and airport terminals are thought to be in more of a legal grey area, ostensibly being connected to matters of national security.

The released data shows that while less than 5,000 cellphone searches were conducted in 2015, that number jumped to nearly 25,000 searches in 2016, with 2017 numbers by an even wider margin. Speaking to VICE News, the CBP stated that additional officers have been trained on electronic media searches since more travellers are arriving at US ports with multiple devices. “Over the past few years, CBP has adapted and adjusted our actions to align with current threat information, which is based on intelligence,” reads the CBP statement. “As the threat landscape changes, so does CBP.”

On the Canadian side of the border, officers are also granted the power to search cellphones and electronic devices and to ask for passwords, saying that border agents have a right to search a traveller’s personal belongings, including electronics. But the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) says that their electronic device searches are restricted to locally stored information.

“Officers are not to read emails or consult social media accounts on the traveller’s digital device unless the information is already downloaded and has been opened (usually marked as read) and is therefore stored on the device,” said CBSA spokesperson Patrizia Giolti to the CBC.

US Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon says that the current practice is ripe for “tremendous abuse” which is putting the security and liberty of Americans at risk. “Law abiding Americans are being caught up in this digital dragnet,” says Senator Wyden to NBC News. “This is just going to grow and grow and grow.”

Senator Wyden reportedly plans to propose a bill that would require that border agents obtain a search warrant before looking into travellers’ phones and devices and that would explicitly prevent officers from demanding electronic passwords. “The old rules … seem to be on the way to being tossed in the garbage can,” says Senator Wyden. “I think it is time to update the law.”

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.
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