US Border Patrol Conducted Record 30,000 Phone Searches In 2017

While civil-libertarian minded lawmakers and the ACLU push to tighten restrictions on phone searches of American citizens, particularly when leaving or entering the US, the Customs and Border Protection Agency reported that the number of phone searches executed at the border skyrocketed in 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The border patrol conducted a record number of cellphones and other devices at US points of entry last year as they intensified their hunt for smugglers and terrorists.

In fiscal year 2017, which ended Sept. 30, the government searched the devices of 30,200 people, the vast majority leaving the country, up from 19,051 in fiscal year 2016. More than 80% of the devices belonged to foreigners or legal permanent residents, with less than one in five owned by a U.S. citizen.

“In this digital age, border searches of electronic devices are essential to enforcing the law at the U.S. border and to protecting the American people,” said John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner for the agency’s Office of Field Operations.

The agency on Friday released a new written policy outlining procedures for searching and seizing electronic devices at the border. The new guidance makes clear that agents can only examine information stored on the device, not data stored “in the cloud” that’s accessible from the device.

The policy makes clear that while agents can ask for passwords to access a device, the passwords aren’t to be retained in any way.

And the policy sets forth standards for agents to do an “advanced search,” which involves connecting the device to a computer to retrieve and copy information. Under the rules, advanced searches are allowed only if there is “reasonable suspicion” and “articulable facts” to support it, and with the approval of a supervisor. The standards for more in-depth searches hadn’t been spelled out before. No such standard exists for basic searches.

The new policy also requires border agents to notify a traveler when his or her device is to be searched, unless telling the traveler would harm “national security, law enforcement, officer safety, or other operational interests.”

Still, the ACLU and its plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the federal government believe these guidelines are still too loose.



Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the administration on behalf of 10 US citizens and one legal permanent resident whose devices were searched or seized at the border. The groups argue in their suit that the government should be required to have a warrant to look at a traveler’s electronic devices.

Among the plaintiffs is a NASA engineer who said he was forced to unlock his phone and give customs agents access to its contents when he returned to the U.S. from Chile on Jan. 31, in the midst of chaos at airports from the fallout of President Donald Trump’s original travel ban. Sidd Bikkannavar is an American-born engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Privacy advocates wanted more protections for travelers’ rights. “This policy still falls far short of what the Constitution requires—a search warrant based on probable cause,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement.

Specifically, ACLU believes these types of searches should require a warrant based on probable cause in every case - a standard we imagine the border patrol would roundly reject.

Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul are working together on a bill that would raise the requirements for law enforcement searches of individuals’ phones.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), who with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has introduced a bill that would require officials to obtain warrants before such searches, suggested the policy didn’t go far enough to protect U.S. citizens’ rights.

“There’s more work to do here,” Mr. Wyden said. “Manually examining an individuals’ private photos, messages and browsing history is still extremely invasive, and should require a warrant. I continue to believe Americans are entitled to their full constitutional rights, no matter where they are in the United States."

However, given the Trump administration’s emphasis on tightening border security - a battle that is just ramping up in Congress - it’s unlikely the administration would stand by and let lawmakers handicap the border patrol.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has even hinted that border patrol agents might start asking for the social media passwords of non-citizens trying to enter the country.



NoDebt peddling-fiction Sun, 01/07/2018 - 21:21 Permalink

Changed the background image on my phone to Osama Bin Laden.  Added lots of pictures of drugs and bomb-making equipment to my photo gallery.  Also added a new sub-folder to my contacts list called "Terrorists".  I'm ready for my next overseas trip.

What the fuck do they think they're going to find on your phone anyway?  If they want to see everything and map your network of contacts that's much more easily done through the service provider, which they have constant back-door access to anyway.


In reply to by peddling-fiction

OverTheHedge dchang0 Sun, 01/07/2018 - 23:48 Permalink

I would like to see if the incidence of searches has a preponderance towards attractive younger females. This might be where all your free home-made porn comes from. People still don't seem to have worked out that private naked selfies are available to all, regardless of theoretical security features.

(I see Alt-RightGirl hasn't come back - do you think might be a border guard?)

In reply to by dchang0

coast1 Sun, 01/07/2018 - 21:11 Permalink

ok...really sorry, I needed a vacation and I bought a hooker in Mexico and used my phone to make it happen...please dont arrest me. She wasnt that great anyway, but for 10 bucks what did I expect huh?   It would be more interesting if you went thru hillary phone calls, but ......

roddy6667 Sun, 01/07/2018 - 22:03 Permalink

Put your phone in your checked luggage. Carry a dollar store burner phone with you.

Don't keep anything important on your real phone, either. Upload all that to the Cloud, except the gay midget porn. Those TSA knuckledraggers need something to look at.


HellAndAHandbasket Sun, 01/07/2018 - 22:25 Permalink

Article leaves a lot of detail OUT, and brings-in a lot of speculation because of it.

Sure does sound intrusive doesn't it? 

But, does it still sound intrusive if the author told you these phone searches are ONLY if you've been referred to "secondary" inspection, which is required if you didn't pass-muster at the first/initial inspection. 

Most pass right along coming into the USofA, with appropriate documentation, without additional searches, and without suspicion.  

You don't pass right along if there is reasonable suspicion - such as a K9 hit (for drugs/money/people smuggling), nervousness when questioned about easy to answer questions, inconsistent answers, or mixed-up details about your stay, etc. 

Fail the 1st inspection, and yeah you "might" have your phone/computer opened-up and searched.

This phone search does NOT mean the BPAgent, or CustomsOfficer at a border, or airport, will grab phones and start searching them, simply because you're crossing an international border, either into or out of the USofA. Frankly, these guys don't have time to conduct searches like this on everyone crossing the border, an average of over 1-million per day enter the country across the nation's borders.

During the 2016 fiscal year, CBP officials conducted 23,877 electronic media searches, the agency processed more than 380 million arriving travelers.

A phone search is of a minimal amount of travelers. . . .006% to be exact.

Geesh - I thought this website had it together with reporting details.

I guess not.

Noktirnal HellAndAHandbasket Mon, 01/08/2018 - 03:39 Permalink

You fail to mention the fact that CBP has set up checkpoints internally in the US, anywhere they want within 100 miles of a border. This is affecting US citizens who are NOT crossing into or out of the US. The Supreme Court has authorized these checkpoints as constitutional within the scope of asking you what country you are a citizen of. Sounds an awful lot like "Ihre Papier, bitte!" to me. You then talk numbers and statistics. What number of unlawful searches, or rights violations in general, would be acceptable to you?

In reply to by HellAndAHandbasket

HRH of Aquitaine 2.0 Sun, 01/07/2018 - 22:44 Permalink

I read about this earlier today.  People were having their phones searched when they were leaving the US!  WTF!  This is insane.  And if you don't give them your phone pass code what are they going to do?  Lock you up?  This is insane.  

The last time I came back to the US from Canada the CBP agents looked like NAZI thugs.  Disgusting.

Montana Cowboy Sun, 01/07/2018 - 23:05 Permalink

Take all your private data and put in into an encrypted file container. Email the file to yourself. Download it after you cross a border, then decrypt and restore.

An encrypted file container is like a zip file in the sense that it holds multiple files. But the encryption key is much more than just a password. My favorite is VeraCrypt, the continuation of the famous TrueCrypt. Its free. Its cross-platform to every op system and will mount a file container as if it were a drive. Also does Full Drive Encryption in Windows.

Funny thing is that real terrorists, presuming they exist, already know all this. The airport Nazis only get data from everyone else - and they know this. So why?

swmnguy Montana Cowboy Mon, 01/08/2018 - 07:19 Permalink

You're quite right; this isn't about catching "real terrorists," presuming of course they exist.

This is about hassling little people, but it's also about industrial espionage.  The contents of these searched devices sometimes pop up in very curious places.

I work coordinating corporate events.  My clients include a number of large companies, many with global employees and operations.  A number of these companies are scheduling their events outside the US now.  I've worked on one annual meeting for a company for about 12 years now.  They bring in executives from about 40 countries, to their US headquarters.  Each time it's about 500 people, so airfare, hotel, food, meeting space, content and video production, entertainment, etc.; counting all costs it's probably close to $10,000,000 spent into the local economy.

Their overseas executives are sick and tired of having their stuff stolen at US Customs, being treated like criminals by the rude and incompetent US border officials.  They've been traveling with burner phones and even burner laptops, accessing their proprietary data only after entry to the US, via VPNs and The Cloud.  They've even set up fake information to pull down and hand over to US Customs, because coming through with empty devices is also a "red flag" that gets people locked into small rooms until they decide to hand over data that may not even be theirs to divulge.

So the sponsors of this one event are taking their $10,000,000 overseas next year, and probably every year after that.  And that's just the one even for the one company I'm thinking of; there are many others.

Hey, I don't mind a paid trip to Europe or Asia.  Except I dread coming back through US Customs.


In reply to by Montana Cowboy

pparalegal Mon, 01/08/2018 - 01:20 Permalink

Ever see the opening scenes of Airplane the movie? Where grandma gets the full body search while IED packing bearded terrorists walk right through TSA like inspection? And that was in 1980.

I have never met a customs/ border agent with any sense of humor. Passing into Canda at Buffalo NY they asked who my governor is and several more questions like it. Got my van stripped coming back from Mexico and grilled in the Vancouver airport after a Carnival cruse to Alaska. And I am a straight white male. No sense of humor.


TeraByte Mon, 01/08/2018 - 02:40 Permalink

Funny, how one can keep safe simple passwords related to historic events, because such dates have been generally misinterpreted. Wanted to be not spied on, why are you here and now? Ever tried to see, which information your PC is constantly providing to third parties, not to mention NSA. It all is in your logs.

roddy6667 Mon, 01/08/2018 - 03:19 Permalink

Americans should travel internationally, especially in Asia. When they return to the States they will see what a police state it has turned into.