Customs Agents Searched 30K Electronic Devices Last Year

There was a 60 percent increase in searches of travelers’ cellphones and laptops. The Customs and Border Protection agency issued new guidelines providing that, travelers may be asked to unlock their electronic devices for inspection or provide passcodes.

U.S. Customs agents conducted 60 percent more searches of travelers’ cellphones, laptops and other electronic devices during the 2017 fiscal year, says the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP), reports the Washington Post. The agency searched 30,200 devices, but the inspections affected only 0.007 percent of the 397 million travelers — including American citizens as well as foreign visitors — who arrived during the year that ended Sept 30. CBP issued new guidelines formalizing the way its officers conduct searches and handle the information they obtain. The agency said the increase was an indication that electronic devices are increasingly viewed as critical sources of information on potential security threats.

American citizens and other travelers have expressed astonishment and alarm at requests to hand over their cellphones from U.S. customs officials at airports and border crossings. CBP said its standards have been thoroughly reviewed to ensure they are not an unreasonable violation of privacy rights. The agency said it sometimes needs information it obtains from devices to determine the admissibility of foreign visitors, viewing them as potential sources of intelligence on terrorism, child pornography or other criminal activity. Under the new guidelines, travelers may be asked to unlock their electronic devices for inspection or provide passcodes. They will be asked to disable the devices’ data transmission. Only information physically stored on the device — such as photographs or phone numbers — would be subject to search. CBP agents would not be allowed to seek information stored externally or on a “cloud” linked to the device. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Or.), a key ally of privacy rights groups, called the new guidelines “an improvement” but said they’re still too intrusive for U.S. citizens.