International travelers coming into the United States should be prepared to unlock their cell phones and laptops in order for U.S. officials to search the data of their digital devices.
U.S. border agents are increasing the number of electronic device searches, according to new data from Customs and Border Protection. Over the last six months, nearly 15,000 devices, including cell phones, computers, and tablets were searched and seized.
“This is not routine, it’s done in a very small number of cases. It won’t be done routinely from anywhere, but if there’s a reason to do it, then we will in fact do it,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said at a recent Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.
But some lawmakers are sounding the alarm.
“My hair is on fire, I’m really upset about this,” said Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Roughly one million people come into the United States each day according to Kelly.
“These searches, which affect fewer than one-hundredth of one percent of international travelers, have contributed to national security investigations, arrests for child pornography and evidence of human trafficking,” John Wagner, Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, of U.S Customs and Border Protection, said.
The government has the authority to search the data of any American citizen’s digital devices without probable cause at any U.S. border or port of entry. US citizens do not have to comply, but officials will likely take away their digital devices. If foreigners refuse they may be denied entry to America.
“It’s not new, I think it’s being somewhat blown out of proportion,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
The Fourth Amendment protects individuals unreasonable search and seizures by the government. In 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that police cannot search digital devices, like cell phones, without a warrant. But at the border or port of entry, the Fourth Amendment does not apply.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to change the rule to protect U.S. citizens’ privacy.
Republican Senator Rand Paul is co-sponsoring a bill that will require U.S. officials to get a warrant for border searches.
“I think that's obscene that as an American citizen, myself, you, anybody else who travels abroad and you can’t come back in your own country unless you give up your cellphone and all of its contents,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
Privacy organizations say the searches are invasive and undermine civil liberties.
“There's a big difference between searching your physical items on you when you're crossing the border that could be dangerous, instead of searching a smartphone, or other similar device that may essentially consists of all the info about you,” said Jeramie Scott, Electronic Privacy Information Center.