Having your electronics searched upon arrival in the United States is rare: according to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), only 0.0061 percent of all arrivals are searched. That’s not many. In 2016, this equated to 23,877 electronic media searches out of 390 million arrivals.
Not so fast, though. Even though the search numbers are small, they’re on a massive uptick. In fact, CBP is now reporting that those numbers more grew five-fold between 2015 and 2016. And, according to recent numbers reported by NBC, this year is on pace to be a “blockbuster year” for border searches of electronic devices. According to NBC, 5,000 “devices were searched in February alone, more than in all of 2015.”
As for the legality of all of this, ArsTechnica points out that there is what’s called an “exception” to the Fourth Amendment that allows warrantless searches at the border. And if your device is inaccessible due to being locked or encrypted, and you don’t open it for CBP, it can be seized.
They reached out to Nathan Freed Wessler of the American Civil Liberties Union, who is concerned that the CBP is abusing its privileges to impinge on people’s privacy in the name of border security.
“I’ve heard no good explanation from CBP for the rapid expansion of device searches at the border,” he told ArsTechnica. “It raises the concern that CBP is taking advantage of travelers’ vulnerability at the border to delve into people’s private lives and collect intelligence unrelated to the normal border-search purposes of detecting contraband or verifying immigration status. In light of the vast quantities of private information people carry on their phones and laptops, that is extremely troubling.”
The new numbers reported by NBC could just be a blip, but they could also be an alarming trend at the borders due to Trump’s revised travel ban. Here’s hoping it doesn’t continue to the point that device searches become commonplace.