Remember last year, when there were all those reports of border guards forcing passengers to unlock their phones so they could search through them, for no apparent cause? That wasn’t some “fake news” hysteria: US Customs and Border Protection searched nearly 60 percent more devices last year than it did in 2016, according to data from the agency released Friday. And CBP has also updated its directive on searching electronic devices to make it even clearer that the agency fully intends to keep doing so.
In 2016, CBP searched through 19,051 electronic devices, including phones, laptops, and tablets. In 2017, that number jumped to 30,200, with more than 2,000 searches every month. On Friday, CBP released an updated version of its directive on searching personal electronics, which was originally penned in 2009. While the old directive only mentioned passwords in cases where agents couldn’t access specific information and may need to hold a device, the new directive makes it clear: you’re expected to unlock your phone if asked.
“Travelers are obligated to present electronic devices and the information contained therein in a condition that allows inspection of the device and its contents,” the new directive reads, going on to note that can require obtaining passcodes.
There are some ways the directive better protects travellers’ privacy. For one, border agents are not allowed to use secondary software to search a device unless they have “reasonable suspicion of activity in violation of the law.” They’re also prohibited from creeping things outside of what’s actually on your device—the directive says passengers should be allowed to put their phone in airplane mode so the officer can only search what’s actually on there, as opposed to things you may have searched in the past, or information stored outside the device.
But privacy advocates say it still isn’t legal for officers to search your device without a warrant, even though many people choose to just comply rather than face the potential wrath of a snubbed border guard.
“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 press statement. “The policy would still enable officers at the border to manually sift through a traveler’s photos, emails, documents, and other information stored on a device without individualized suspicion of any kind.”
If you’re particularly worried, experts say your safest bet at the moment is to have a separate, clean travel phone. Leave the real deal at home.
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