Phone Searches at Border Crossings Violate Privacy Rights, Senator Says

US Sen. Ron Wyden says the warrantless searches and collection of data from phones and other devices are "egregious violations" of traveler privacy.

Bree Fowler Senior Writer
Bree Fowler writes about cybersecurity and digital privacy. Before joining CNET she reported for The Associated Press and Consumer Reports. A Michigan native, she's a long-suffering Detroit sports fan, world traveler, wannabe runner and champion baker of over-the-top birthday cakes and all-things sourdough.
Expertise cybersecurity, digital privacy, IoT, consumer tech, smartphones, wearables
Bree Fowler
2 min read
A picture of US Sen. Ron Wyden.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.

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US Customs and Border Protection is collecting data without warrants from thousands of electronic devices at border crossings each year and adding it to a massive database that can be accessed by its agents, according to a US senator.

In a letter to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus released Thursday and reported on earlier by The Washington Post, Sen. Ron Wyden called for the agency to update its practices and put in place stronger data privacy protections at US border crossings.

The Oregon Democrat urged the agency to "focus on suspected criminals and security threats, rather than allowing indiscriminate rifling through Americans' private records without suspicion of a crime."

CBP officials didn't immediately respond to an email from CNET seeking comment.

Wyden said he recently learned from CBP that when thousands of Americans' phones are searched at the border each year, their contents are downloaded into a central database, where data is held for 15 years and can be accessed by roughly 2,700 Department of Homeland Security employees. 

On top of that, the devices are searched without warrants, and travelers often aren't informed of their rights before their phones are searched, Wyden says, calling the practices "egregious violations" of privacy rights.

Wyden says CBP didn't provide his office with statistics on the total number of Americans with data included in the database, or how often the database is used by DHS workers.

According to publicly available CBP statistics, for the fiscal year set to end on Sept. 30, 2022, the agency has so far searched 38,567 electronic devices; slightly more than 37,450 it searched in the full previous fiscal year. It's unknown how many of those devices had their data copied and added to the database.

CBP notes alongside its statistics that federal laws and rules give it the right to search all types of personal property at border crossings, including electronic devices.

It also notes that searches of electronic devices are extremely rare. For example, for the 2020 fiscal year, the agency says it conducted 32,038 searches of electronic devices, representing just .014 percent of the 238 million people who crossed into the US during that period.