U.S. Customs officials are permitted by law to look at anything stored on your laptop, phone, or other devices when you’re crossing the border. Border agents are allowed to look at information stored on remote servers, even if it’s accessible through apps on the device. But if a device “or portions of the content on the device” are locked, they are allowed to use “lawful measures” to open them, including asking travelers to unlock their phones or computers, reveal their passwords, or turn over their devices for a forensic search.
That’s according to a letter sent last week by acting Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner Kevin McAleenan to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), known for his privacy-rights advocacy, the Washington Post reports. McAleenan reiterated the agency policy in an internal memo distributed in April, his letter said.
Civil rights advocates have long argued that U.S. border searches are too extensive, and pointed out that the CBP letter dodged Wyden’s question about whether CBP officers are obliged to tell travelers that they are not required to disclose social media account passwords or passcodes to unlock electronic devices. Chris Calabrese, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, wrote in a blog post, “Ironically, [the policy is] unlikely to have any security value, since bad actors conceal their accounts, and the government drowns in information from innocent people.”
The searches, considered by the government to be akin to searches of suitcases, have surged in recent years—NBC News reported that there were 5,000 in March alone.
Not long ago, I wrote about steps travelers can take to keep their data safe at border crossings.