US Customs and Border Protection officers “Regularly conduct unauthorized searches on American devices”, in some cases downloading text messages, photos, call logs and other information from devices and uploading it to the department’s central database, where it will be stored for 15 years and available to 2,700 authorized representatives of US government agencies. This fact was discovered by US Senator Ron Wyden, who sent Letter (PDF) calling it with a call to stop such activities “a flagrant violation of the rights of Americans”.
The United States has the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and arrests in the country and also requires that warrants for such acts be issued only by a court and only when reasonable cause exists. However, according to Mr Wyden, border guards are abusing the exception to this rule by searching the contents of phones and laptops entering the country without suspicion of a crime. At the same time, he added, the exemption was only put in place to stop smuggling and not allow authorities to collect personally identifiable information from citizens of the United States and other countries.
The practice of “basic screening” consists of simply making a department worker familiar with text messages and images on inbound devices. However, if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the individual has violated the law or poses a “threat to the national security” of the United States, the service representative may, with the manager’s consent, download information from the device into a departmental database whose Search is available to US Department of Homeland Security personnel. At the same time, basic and detailed inspection procedures are not kept, just as there is no log of searches by Ministry employees on the base.
Mr Wyden’s letter also relates to a Customs and Border Protection briefing in June, which noted that the database was being updated with photos, text message content, call logs, contact lists and other sensitive information “less than 10,000” devices annually. The border guards also said government officials requesting information from the database are not recommended to disclose the purpose of their requests, although this practice is said to be a safeguard against potential abuse.
The senator claims border guards force people to unlock their devices for inspection, face fines of up to $1,000, lawsuits and a travel ban — even US citizens — if they refuse to provide passwords. At the same time, as representatives of the service themselves told Mr Wyden, the agency has never attempted to fine a traveler for refusing to cooperate, and it has no right to refuse an American citizen entry into the country on that basis .
American human rights activists are also aware of the problem: the Electronic Personal Data Protection Center (EPIC) backed a lawsuit in 2020 aimed at stopping the practice of inappropriate searching of electronic device content at the border. And last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a petition in the US Supreme Court to start hearings on the issue of unauthorized review of gadget content per se. Human rights activists doubt that the situation can change for the better without the intervention of the supreme court.