Every year, thousands of Americans have their phones and other devices searched at the border, before they travel abroad. Now, a US senator has disclosure that when searching for these devices, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) loads their contents – which may include text messages, pictures and other personal information – into a database. huge archives, where all were kept for 15 years. That database is accessible to thousands of Department of Homeland Security employees.
In a letter to CBP, Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, urged the agency to “focus on suspected criminals and security threats, rather than allowing indiscriminate access through the personal records of Americans without being suspected of a crime.”
He added, “Such changes would better protect national security and respect the rights of Americans traveling abroad for business and pleasure.”
Wyden said his office became aware of “severe” CBP practices during agency briefings. According to him, the agency is “pressing travelers to unlock their electronic devices without giving adequate notice of their rights.” The content is then downloaded to a central database that can be accessed by approximately 2,700 DHS employees for essentially any reason. When a government employee accesses that database, they do not need to document why they did so.
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CBP has not yet told Wyden the total number of Americans whose data is stored in this database, or how often it is accessed. However, in June, the agency estimated that it saves data from less than 10,000 phones a year.
While law enforcement often requires a warrant to conduct such searches, CBP has used a “border search” loophole that allows its agents to search for phones or laptops. hand of any international tourist.
However, Wyden notes that US travelers have so far stopped these searches by keeping their device data encrypted or refusing to give their CBP passwords.
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“CBP has never attempted to issue a fine against anyone who refused to disclose their password or unlock their phone or laptop,” the senator wrote. “Indeed, the agency has not even issued a written policy or procedural guidance regarding the assessment of fines in this situation.”
Wyden requested that CBP submit a written plan by October 31 to address these issues.