Though it’s long been legal for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents to search through travelers’ and immigrants’ phones, those searches have increased exponentially already this year — and it’s only March.
In February alone, agents searched more than 5,000 devices — more than in the entire year of 2015 — according to Department of Homeland Security data obtained by NBC News. Of the 25 travelers (U.S.-born and otherwise) that NBC News talked to about having their phones confiscated under questioning last month, 23 were Muslim, suggesting a causal link to Donald Trump’s travel ban from Muslim-majority countries, which remains under legal siege.
Confiscating and examining the contents of digital devices isn’t a new customs practice under Trump. There have been plenty of cases in recent years involving foreign journalists, NASA scientists, and others having their phones taken by the CBP for surveillance, though the constitutionality is questionable. If the February pace continues, DHS will surpass all of 2016’s roughly 25,000 confiscations by sometime around mid-year.
There hasn’t been a single cause determined for the dramatic spike in Border Patrol phone searches. However, the focus on Muslim or Muslim-appearing travelers speaks to a broader set of confusing incidents in which American government officials have given conflicting directives about how to best enforce President Trump’s (recently revised) ban on refugees and travelers from several Muslim-majority countries. For example, in late January a Somali-Canadian citizen was forced off a flight from Canada to Europe because it would overfly U.S. airspace.
The CBP told VICE News in a statement Tuesday: “Over the past few years, CBP has adapted and adjusted our actions to align with current threat information, which is based on intelligence. As the threat landscape changes, so does CBP. Additional CBP officers have been trained on electronic media searches as more travelers than ever before are arriving at U.S. ports of entry with multiple electronics. Despite an increase in electronic media searches during the last fiscal year, it remains that CBP examines the electronic devices of less than one-hundredth of one percent of travelers arriving to the United States.”
As for what travelers can expect when going abroad, both the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have created helpful digital handbooks. The ACLU offers some important cautionary words, however: Though the organization has argued in court that Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure should apply at airports and border crossings, the government and the courts have not yet agreed.
So for now, if you or someone you know is planning to travel abroad with sensitive material on an electronic device, you might be better off leaving it (the device and/or the material) at home.