Warrantless cellphone searches by US Customs

5 ways to prepare for warrantless cellphone searches

Customs and Border ProtectionWarrantless cellphone searches can affect every traveler. Prepare to protect your data when traveling.

Sidd Bikkannavar, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Global Entry member. Like all members, Mr. Bikkannavar was vetted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and designated a “trusted traveler.”
Last year, according to Mr. Bikkannavar, a U.S. citizen, born and raised in California, when he returned from Chile after a two-week vacation he was detained by CBP at the airport. When eventually put into an interview room, a CBP agent questioned him and ordered him to turn over his cellphone and its passcode to unlock it to search it.

Mr. Bikkannavar said he resisted the warrantless cellphone search at first. He explained that it was a NASA phone and that he had to protect it. Eventually, fearful that he would be detained for a prolonged period, he gave the phone and its passcode to the agent. He got the phone back a half hour later after it was searched.

CBP agents can’t stop, interrogate and search travelers entering the U.S. based solely on race, national origin, religion, gender, or ethnicity, but they are permitted to stop travelers based on citizenship, travel itinerary or merely randomly choose travelers to interrogate and search. At this time, CBP can perform warrantless cellphone searches with neither reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

Click here to subscribeAs Mr. Bikkannavar found, even if you’ve been previously vetted by DHS, you may be subjected to a search.

Whether a foreign national or U.S. citizen, when entering the U.S., you and your belongings may be searched. Though it’s being contested in the courts, including the case, Ghassan Alasaad v. Elaine Duke, CBP agents can search and even confiscate your cellphone, tablet, laptop computer, and other electronic devices at the border, to examine their contents.

Think about what’s in a typical traveler’s cellphone, tablet, and laptop. They contain passwords, personal information about friends, family finances, social media, texts, emails, call history, browsing history, photos and more. Work devices may have employer trade secrets and financial information.

When the government inspects your devices it doesn’t just affect you. It affects your family, friends and possibly your employer, business contacts and others.

According to CBP data, CBP agents conducted 14,993 electronic device searches at the border in the first half of fiscal 2017, meaning that CBP is on track to conduct almost 30,000 searches this fiscal year. That’s about a 350 percent increase over the 8,503 electronic device searches CBP conducted in fiscal 2015.

To put that in some context, more than 100 million passengers fly into the U.S. each year. The 30,000 passengers searched amount to just 0.03 percent, but don’t tell that to those who have been and will be searched.

If your electronic device is encrypted or password/passcode protected, CBP agents conducting the search will no doubt direct you to provide your key, password and/or passcode.

Download Airplane Carry-on ChecklistIf you’re a U.S. citizen and refuse to provide CBP with the device entry information, you might be delayed, perhaps for quite a while, but you can’t be denied entry into the U.S. Your electronic devices may be seized and held for months to attempt to break into them for examination if you don’t provide their entry information. There could even be future consequences. If you’re a foreign national and refuse to provide CBP with the entry code information, you can be denied entry to the U.S.

If your devices can be unlocked biometrically, such as with a fingerprint, voice or facial recognition, CBP can apparently require you to unlock the device by touching it, speaking to it or looking at it.

There are steps you can take to prevent CBP from obtaining your personal or business data from your electronic devices as you enter the U.S.

• To the extent possible, keep your personal and business data off your devices. I connect to my workstation in my office remotely through a VPN connection from all over the world. My data files, emails, browsing data, etc. are accessed remotely while I travel, so none of that data is on my laptop. If examined, CBP will see nothing.

• If you’ve added data to your device on your trip, save it to the cloud before departing for the U.S. or in your remote computer, then erase it from your device.

• If you must keep data on your devices, lock them down. Encrypt hard drives and use strong passwords on all devices. Turn your devices off before entering customs. Generally, you only get full protection if the devices are off when customs takes custody of them.

• Disable biometric unlocking of all your devices. Better yet, remove the biometric data so it can’t be used.

• Backup your cellphone remotely, then remove all but important emergency information on it before you enter the U.S. Leave enough unimportant data on your cellphone to keep CBP from getting angry that you’ve “cleansed” your cellphone.

While it’s statistically unlikely that you’ll be pulled aside by CBP when entering the U.S., it could happen. Prepare for it if you’re concerned. Decide in advance if you’ll cooperate. If you don’t cooperate, be prepared to be detained for a while.