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The Shocking Power of Customs and Border Patrol Agents

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Imagine returning from an international trip and upon your arrival in the states, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol requests to inspect your smartphone or laptop. Then they proceed to look through your emails, texts, pictures and everything else on your device.

This is exactly what happened to 38-year-old computer programmer Matthew Wright — and it was no ordinary inspection. After traveling to Southeast Asia for a Frisbee tournament, Matthew flew home to Colorado. At the Denver airport, border agents asked him to unlock his computer for inspection.

When he refused, agents seized not only his laptop but his smartphone and camera as well for “further screening.” Since Matthew, like many people, depended on his devices for his livelihood, he went straight to the Apple store and spent $2,420 to replace the confiscated items.

personal electronics

Finally, 56 days after these devices were taken, the Department of Homeland Security returned them to their rightful owner.

The Cost of Security

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. But the fact is customs and border patrol agents can seize electronic devices for inspection — without a warrant or probable cause — and there is simply nothing you can do to stop them.

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), 30,200 electronic devices were searched in 2017. Even more troubling, that number is 60% higher than the number of searches carried out by agents the previous year.

The DHS maintains that “in this digital age, border searches of electronic devices are essential to enforcing the law at the U.S. border and to protecting the American people.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for protecting our nation from people coming from overseas to harm us. However, there is no doubt that many innocent and law-abiding people are paying a high price because of these searches.

Rules to Play By

On Jan. 4, 2018, the DHS released new rules related to the inspection of electronic devices. Under these new rules, agents are still allowed to search electronic devices. However, they are only permitted to access data stored directly on the device, not any information stored remotely or in the cloud.

To conduct a more advanced search, agents are required to have reasonable suspicion of a crime or national security concern. What’s more, they are also allowed to review, copy and analyze the contents of said electronic devices if they believe there is a viable threat.

Agents are also still permitted to request passcodes from travelers as well as keep encrypted or inaccessible devices for further inspection. This means that even if your device is passcode protected, you may be asked to unlock it. If you refuse, your device will be confiscated, just like Matthew’s.

Basically, this policy enables agents to manually look through your personal photos, emails, documents and other information stored on your device if THEY determine there is “reasonable suspicion.” And if you deny them access, you could be in for a major headache.

Protect Your Privacy

Here’s the thing: Whether or not you believe the agents actually have the right to search your phone, it would be a huge inconvenience to have everything taken away from you. There’s no other option but to give them what they want — it’s a Hobson’s choice, a Catch-22, an inextricable dilemma.

If you frequently travel overseas and have private, personal or work documents that you don’t want anyone to see, the best thing to do is store them on the cloud. By storing private information using a cloud service such as Dropbox, you can protect your privacy while still giving agents access to your device.

Of course, if you do use a cloud storage service, I recommend deleting the application or software from your electronic device. Otherwise, this may open the door to more questions. The agent may also ask you for access to the cloud storage program in this case because technically they can see it as part of the physical search. (Yes, it’s a tricky situation.)

The next time you plan an international trip, be sure to consider what electronic devices you are taking with you and what information is stored on them. It may be best to back up your devices on cloud storage so you aren’t forced to share personal information — or just leave them at home.

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