Since Donald Trump took office, Customs and Border Patrol has gotten a lot more aggressive about searching through people’s phones when they come into the U.S.
The agency released data Tuesday that show a 79 percent increase in the number of electronic devices it searched at the U.S. border, comparing fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2017 so far. Between October 2015 and March 2016, CBP says, it searched 8,383 electronic devices; a year later, that number has risen to 14,993.
In March, NBC News reported on this spike in searches at the border, noting that CBP was primarily targeting Muslims — including U.S. citizens — and that phone searches frequently accompanied hostile interrogations of travelers. CBP Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner said in a blog post that such searches “affect fewer than one-hundredth of one percent of international travelers,” and that they have “contributed to national security investigations, arrests for child pornography, and evidence of human trafficking.”
A bipartisan group of legislators in Congress disagrees. Earlier in April, Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate introduced bills aimed at closing the legal loopholes that allow CBP to search U.S. citizens’ phones at the border.
Neema Singh Gulyani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told VICE News that the ACLU is deeply concerned about the rise in phone searches at the border.
“Even before the rise in phone searches, we were concerned about and disagreed with the position that CBP had taken, that they could search through cellphones, laptops, and other electronic devices without probable cause or a warrant of any type,” Singh Gulyani said. “What we have been hearing are complaints that reflect the CBP number.”
More broadly, CBP appears to be getting serious about expanding its sphere of control online. In addition to the phone searches, the agency recently attempted to compel Twitter to reveal the identity of whoever operates the “@ALT_USCIS” account (a frequent critic of the Department of Homeland Security, which houses CBP). Twitter filed a lawsuit on First Amendment grounds in response, and within a day CBP ditched the summons.
“I will tell you that we are hearing about more and more situations where people are being asked for their passwords for Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts, and so on,” Singh Gulyani said, framing this as part of a broader Trump administration attempt to tighten U.S. borders. “We have heard from the Trump administration, and we have seen through their executive orders this desire to build up enforcement into and at the border, in ways that are unwise and present constitutional concerns. It’s hard not to see that as a reflection of a broader policy.”