Tech by VICE

Digital Rights Advocates Want the UN to Stop Social Media Searches at the US Border

Refugees and immigrants are having their digital lives exposed at America’s borders.

by Samantha Cole
Feb 17 2017, 5:28pm

Image: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Follow/Flickr

Your life is on your phone. If someone has access to your cell—assuming you keep apps and cloud services logged in—they have a near-complete picture of who you are: Where you've been, who you're closest to, what you believe, and where your money goes. That's why Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly wants refugees and visa applicants to give up their social media passwords as part of the administration's new "extreme vetting" process.

But according to Access Now, a digital rights advocacy group, this type of search might be a human rights violation worth investigating.

On Thursday, Access Now wrote an open letter asking the United Nations to investigate the online human rights issues at America's borders. Co-signers include the American Civil Liberties Union, Muslim Justice League, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, National Immigration Law Center, and dozens more.

The letter cites several news articles about Border Patrol agents checking new arrivals' social media accounts and the contents of their mobile phones.

"For some around the world, digital privacy is also a matter of life and death," Drew Mitnick, Policy Counsel at Access Now told me in an email. "Moreover, people depend on the privacy of their digital lives to truly speak their minds. Evidence shows that online surveillance limits how we use the internet to communicate. Discriminatory border searches run counter to these very fundamental principles."

It's difficult to know what's going on at each border entry point, Mitnick said, as each operates differently and with little transparency. "That's why the letter also asks for a comprehensive investigation and site visits so that we can all have a better understanding of the extent that border agents are currently demanding access to digital data," he said.

The signers want to see the UN put pressure on the US to take up digital rights as human rights, and stop unwarranted searches of mobile phones and social media accounts.   

In July of last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on "the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet," that covered a lot of digital privacy ground, but specifically in the arena of national security, the resolution:

"Calls upon all States to address security concerns on the Internet in accordance with their international human rights obligations to ensure protection of freedom of expression, freedom of association, privacy and other human rights online, including through national democratic, transparent institutions, based on the rule of law, in a way that ensures freedom and security on the Internet so that it can continue to be a vibrant force that generates economic, social and cultural development"

The resolution was considered a win by groups like the Web Foundation and Access Now, but it's not legally binding. Access Now hopes that the UN, as it's done with other border issues, will call on the US to honor human rights obligations around digital privacy.  

"These practices persist in violation of the United States human rights treaty obligations and your action is needed to hold the government accountable for the protection of human rights at US borders, which are not zones of exclusion or exception," the co-signers wrote in the letter.

"Device and social media searches at the border raise a number of core topics for the UN, including migration, privacy, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression," Mitnick said.

Although it isn't within the UN's power to put a stop to human rights violations at the US border, digital rights advocates are hoping it can throw its weight behind investigations and awareness. Ideally, the UN would condemn these practices, encourage transparency, and put the pressure on politicians to take action.

"In the case of border searches, that could mean ensuring procedures are in place at the Department of Homeland Security so that agents are honoring US human rights obligations," Mitnick said. "It would also deter legislation that would formalize border practices that violate rights... I think it is likely we will see more from the UN on the issue."