DHS cellphone border searches jumped 50 percent in 2017

Violet Powell
January 7, 2018

If an agent is presented with an electronic device that is locked with a passcode or any other security mechanism, they can ask the traveler to unlock the device.

US Customs and Border Patrol searched more phones and laptops at the border in 2017 - 30,200 devices total.

WASHINGTON (AP) - The government inspected a record number of worldwide travelers' electronic devices previous year, expanding a practice that has drawn alarm from privacy advocates.

Customs and Border Protection officers arrested a Phoenix man attempting to cross the U.S. - Mexico border with more than a ton of marijuana over the weekend.

Despite the controversy, the CBP says that it only searches a very small percentage of devices compared to the number of travelers passing through every year (0.007% last year, for example).

CBP said that the searches were not a "policy directive" but conducted in lieu of the fact that electronic devices are important sources of information on looming security threats.

The searches are aimed at combatting terrorism, child pornography and other crimes.

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Today the CBP released a new Directive that supersedes the one it released in 2009, explaining that the new one "enhances transparency, accountability and oversight of electronic device border searches" it performs.

Agents are also prohibited from retrieving any information that is stored remotely, such as data stored in the cloud.

Border searches have been controversial for years, but the proliferation of tablets and smartphones and the increase in the amount of personal information people store on them has made the devices a juicy target for searches - but also raised questions about limits.

The new guidance also lays out the types of searches officers conduct.

An "advanced" search requires an officer to have reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior and approval of a supervisor.

Customs and Border Patrol agents inspecting a vehicle at Port of Lukeville, Arizona, on September 24, 2014.

Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, described the changes as a "step in the right direction", but said they are largely cosmetic and still allow the government to conduct unconstitutional searches.

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