Smartphone Privacy Is Under Threat at the Border

Invasive searches of devices and computers are becoming more common for border crossers, but they’re being challenged in court

Ramin Skibba
OneZero
Published in
6 min readJun 7, 2019

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Photo: Roman Stavila/Getty Images

PPicture this: You’re driving up from Tijuana to San Diego, and as you cross the U.S. border, agents stop you and demand to see your iPhone. With no explanation, and no warrant, they can thumb through your phone, or simply take it and extract all the data they want — every embarrassing text, private photos, even deleted files. And this happens more often than you think.

Over the past few years, with little fanfare, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have rapidly ramped up the number of digital searches they carry out, using powerful tools to copy personal data from people’s smartphones, tablets, and laptops as they cross the border. More than a million people cross the border or arrive by airport every day in the U.S., with around 100,000 passing daily by foot, car, and bus through the Tijuana-San Diego port of entry alone. A not insignificant number of these people — now thousands annually — are being subjected to invasive searches of their devices.

“The government’s national security powers are strongest at the border,” says Catherine Crump, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley law school and director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic. “But this just gives the government an incredible opportunity, a situation ripe for abuse. The government has untrammeled access to people’s most sensitive information.”

In the past, someone crossing the border might deal with a routine search of their jacket or trunk, while for something more than routine, like a full-body cavity search, border agents would need to get a warrant. Now government searches of people’s devices could be on their way to becoming routine. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are challenging this practice in a court case, which will likely be decided this summer.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees the rights of people against unreasonable searches and seizures, but national security concerns trump privacy rights at the border, and CBP…

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