Warrantless Searches of Cellphones, Content at US Borders Raise Privacy Concerns

Update 7/21/17: new letter from federal officials has clarified some elements of policies surrounding cellphone searches at the border. The letter states that US Customs and Border Protection agents are permitted to search travelers’ phones, but not the data stored exclusively on the cloud. Only information stored physically on the phone can be looked at  – which is still concerning because if they are able to search your phone, they theoretically can access your information stored on the cloud if your data is synced.

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By now, you’ve probably heard the buzz about border agents in the United States conducting warrantless cellphone and laptop searches over the past months for individuals entering the country. These searches are (of course) being done in the interest of “national security,” but they’re being conducted without safeguards for citizens and are raising some serious privacy concerns. Devices have been seized, and in some instances officials have gone as far as obtaining copies of the content.

Stories have been circulating about people being detained for hours, their devices searched and personal contents including photos and social media accounts viewed without a warrant and seemingly at will. Social media passwords have also been demanded. These practices are highly-invasive, and done without oversight or recourse for the individuals being searched. Searches are on the rise, as these alarming statistics indicate:

  • The number of cell phone searches at points of entry to the United States has risen from 5,000 in 2015 to 25,000 in 2016
  • In February 2017, there were 5,000 searches alone

As these activities continue to occur, we need to start thinking about their invasiveness. Although they occur in the digital realm, they are just as intrusive, if not MORE invasive, than physical searches of a person or their possessions. After all, our electronic devices are no longer just a place we make calls and maintain our contacts. We keep personal information, and images that we do not intend to share with the general public, let alone federal authorities.

That said, a new bill has been introduced (finally) to address some of the concerns. As outlined by The Intercept, “The bill states that accessing without a warrant electronic equipment, the contents of an online account, or information about someone’s online life is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. ” The bill would make it illegal to view the contents of devices, and prohibit agents from holding people and forcing them to unlock their phones. The bill only offers protections for US citizens.

At Golden Frog, we are alarmed by the basic rights and privacy violations taking place at our borders, and believe these practices need to end. An unauthorized and warrantless digital search of a person at the border is no different than a physical search, and we should be afforded the same privacy protections in every other situation.

What Can You Do

  • Speak out against these practices using Access Now’s Fly Don’t Spy campaign (this is in collaboration with many others)  – Please reject any proposal to require visa applicants, refugees, or other foreign visitors to provide passwords for online accounts, including social media, in order to enter the United States.”
  • Join Open Media’s call to stop Intrusive Cell phone searches at the border