US border agency searched 30,200 phones and computers in 2017

Searches of electronic devices at the border increased nearly 60 percent from 2016. The agency also released updated guidelines for conducting searches.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
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Laura Hautala
2 min read
Illustration of the Statue of Liberty superimposed over a circuitboard. US Customs and Border Patrol updated its guidelines on searching phones and computers at the border -- searches it conducted more than 30,000 times in 2017.

US Customs and Border Patrol updated its guidelines on searching phones and computers at the border -- searches it conducted more than 30,000 times in 2017.

James Martin/CNET

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

The agency released those numbers Friday along with updated guidelines on how to conduct the searches, which have become a hot button issue under the administration of President Donald Trump. A lawsuit from the ACLU claims the searches violate constitutional rights to privacy, but the government says border searches are exempted from these protections for the sake of national security.

"In this digital age, border searches of electronic devices are essential to enforcing the law at the US border and to protecting the American people," John Wagner, a deputy executive assistant commissioner at Customs and Border Patrol, said in a statement. 

Travelers can be subjected to the searches whether or not they're US citizens. Border Patrol agents have conducted the searches since before Trump's election. The number of searches increased by about 59 percent from 2016 to 2017, the year Trump took office.

The searches can reveal everything on a traveler's phone, tablet or computer, from vacation photos to potentially sensitive documents like business records or health information. In July, the US Department of Homeland Security said its authority to search electronic devices didn't extend to information stored in the cloud that a device might be able to access. Customs and Border Patrol is run under the auspices of Homeland Security.

The ACLU and Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said they were pleased to see Customs and Border Patrol make public what their policies are for searching the phones. However, they criticized the guidelines for not requiring a warrant.

"It is positive that CBP's policy would at least require officers to have some level of suspicion before copying and using electronic methods to search a traveler's electronic device," Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel at the ACLU, said in a statement. "However, this policy still falls far short of what the Constitution requires — a search warrant based on probable cause."

Wyden called for the agency to seek warrants as well. The senator introduced legislation last year that would have written that requirement into law.

Wagner said in his statement that Customs and Border Patrol respects the civil liberties of travelers whose devices it searches. "CBP's authority for the border search of electronic devices is and will continue to be exercised judiciously, responsibly, and consistent with the public trust," he added. 

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