Searches of mobile phones by border agents grew from fewer than 5,000 in 2015 to 25,000 in 2016, and in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, anecdotal evidence shows that searches have risen further, as per data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Border control searching electronic devices:
These invasive searches without any warrant or even suspicion are carried out by border agents. They go through text messages, social media accounts and photos, and ask the owner about the people they are interacting with, their religious affiliations and travel patterns.
The increase in technical capacity at the border is credited to the rise in searches, according to experts.
The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, a free speech watchdog, filed a freedom of information lawsuit which seeks to obtain the DHS’s rules for “suspicionless” searches of mobile devices. What exactly immigration officials are looking for and how they decide who to target, are what the Institute wants to know.
US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) can also confiscate devices for a further forensic examination. Agents can, in this case, make full copies of all of the data on the phone and share it with other government agencies.
This is concerning for businesses if the devices are used for work and may contain confidential information, which could potentially be copied leaked.
If individuals refuse to give over their passwords, repercussions depend on their immigration status, they could be turned away from the United States. But US citizens and returning green card holders can’t be denied entry for refusing to provide a password.
Experts recommend using encryption and a strong password if your goal is to prevent border officials from accessing your data.
But failure to co-operate can create practical problems as immigration officials can detain people for hours of secondary questioning and seize their device for weeks
How to protect your data:
The best thing to do is to leave your main phone and laptop at home and go across the border with a burner phone, which is a simple device that doesn’t have your email or social media apps on it.
Experts suggest deleting data and apps from devices, for those who can’t leave their phones behind.
Paul Lipman, the Silicon Valley-based CEO of security company Bullguard, explains that with so much of our data is now stored in the cloud rather than on the local device, apps have become the prime conduit to our data.
He gives an example using secure cloud storage app Dropbox, where he keeps personal and business documents. In order to prevent border agents from searching these of documents, a smartphone owner can simply delete the app and download it again once they are in the country.