U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents have the broad legal authority to conduct searches at the border and Port of Entry (POE). Unlike police officers who need search warrants, CBP can conduct searches “without individualized suspicion” as stated in CBP’s policy. U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and visitors alike are subjected to CBP searches, including searches of electronic devices and social media accounts.
In light of heightened national security interests and border protection, the Supreme Court has upheld CBP’s right to conduct warrantless searches without any suspicion as “reasonable” and an exception to the 4th Amendment. In this digital age where cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices, contain private information, including photos, contacts, and messages, the warrantless search is rather intrusive, particuarly when it is done without much justification by the CBP agent.
A secondary issue to the warrantless searches is CBP’s access to the individual’s social media accounts. CBP started collecting identifiers (search words) to view one’s public information in 2016. However, American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) reported that it has seen instances where CBP agents requested login information so they can view private messages. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said officials were considering a policy that would allow CBP agents to ask refugees and immigrants for their social media login information.
Speaking to The New York Times, a CBP spokesman reported that CBP agents inspected 4,444 cellphones and 320 other electronic devices in 2015. The number rose to 23,000 in 2016. America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that it has seen an increase in the number of people who said their electronic devices have been searched.
One can refuse to consent to a search, but that does not stop CBP from forcing him/her to unlock the device, detain him/her until s/he consents, arrest the him/her, seize the device and release the person, or for nonimmigrants, refuse their admission into the U.S. There are ways to prepare before traveling. Suggestions from ACLU include:
- traveling with as little data and as few devices as possible. The less you’re carrying, the less there is to search. Consider using a travel-only smartphone or laptop that doesn’t contain private or sensitive information. You could also ship your devices to yourself in advance. (Be aware that CBP claims the authority to search international packages so it is best to encrypt any devices that you ship.) Keep in mind that a forensic search of your device will unearth deleted items, metadata, and other files.
- encrypting devices with strong and unique passwordsand shut them down when crossing the border.
- storing sensitive data in a secure cloud-storage account. Don’t keep a copy of the data in your physical possession, and disable any apps that connect to cloud-based accounts where you store sensitive communications or files. (There’s no articulated CBP policy on whether agents may click on apps and search data stored in the cloud. While this kind of warrantless search should be well outside the government’s authority at the border, we don’t know how they view this issue.)
- uploading sensitive photos on your camera to your password-protected laptop or a cloud-storage account. Digital cameras don’t offer encrypted storage, so you should consider backing up your photos and deleting them from your camera and reformatting the camera’s memory card.