Border Control

Alex Gil, Device Security at the Border Workshop

Portrait of Alex Gil, by Gretchen Röehrs Alex Gil, by Gretchen Röehrs

When you cross the US border, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents can search your electronic devices without a warrant or any degree of personalized suspicion. While these searches aren’t new—they began under George W. Bush and spiked sharply under Barack Obama—they’re likely to skyrocket under Trump. According to NBC News, 2017 is on pace to be a “blockbuster year” for device searches at the border: February 2017 saw 5,000 searches, more than in all of 2015. And anecdotal evidence suggests that CBP agents are acting more aggressively than ever before.

Alex Gil is Digital Scholarship Coordinator for Humanities and History at Columbia University in New York. He spoke to us about a recent workshop he held with his colleagues called Device Security at the Border. He shared some advice about how to protect your devices at the border, and why the election of Trump means we should prepare for the worst.

Tell us about the Device Security at the Border workshop. What was the purpose of the workshop, and what did it consist of?

The teach-in took place on February 10, 2017 at Columbia University. My co-moderators, Professor Manan Ahmed and Professor Dennis Tenen, came up with the idea, wrote the course prep, and led the workshop. The workshop was done in tandem with the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)—our lab having recently joined the Electronic Frontier Alliance—and their indispensable articles and tutorials inspired much of the lesson plan. The impetus was the visible increase in invasive behavior from border officers right after the first “Muslim Ban” Executive Order (EO).

The event was standing room only. While it was geared towards academics and researchers in particular, it was also open to the general public. Many of us are actively involved in research in the countries named in that first EO, or otherwise we hail from those countries. Our research is often sensitive or can be taken out of context by border authorities, leading to unwarranted trouble at the border.

The event lasted a bit over an hour. The first thirty minutes or so, Tenen and Ahmed led the group through several scenarios for minimizing the risk of losing data, devices, or worse. After their presentation was over, they opened up the discussion to the room. Towards the end of the workshop, participants were prompted to list their personal device vulnerabilities on a piece of paper, an exercise that could help them better plan for crossing the border.

What are CBP agents doing with people’s devices at the border? Whom are they targeting? What kind of information are they looking for? And what’s the legal basis for all of this?

The CBP is inspecting travelers’ devices: laptops, cameras, phones, etc. In some cases, they will examine your devices in front of you. In others, they will confiscate the devices for more thorough examination. These confiscations can sometimes last several days. Your device is taken offsite to be handled by technical experts, where they may make full copies of your data before they return the device to you. CBP agents are also asking people to list their social media accounts, so that they can rummage through your online life and networks.

The handout that they give targeted passengers provide the stated reasons for the searches, including: incomplete documentation, a previous violation, or having the same name as “a person of interest.” Such latitude makes it easy for them to discriminate based on ethnicity, occupation, or origin, which we have reason to believe is happening. It goes without saying that travelers from or to Muslim countries, whether they are on the banned list or not, are particularly vulnerable in our current atmosphere.

We can only suspect what they are looking for. On their information sheet they only tell us they are looking to verify citizenship and the “admissibility” of foreign nationals, or trying to deter terrorism and locate contraband. But in reality, we have already seen a few passengers being harassed outside of this criteria.

As Tenen and Ahmed pointed out during the teach-in, we can’t provide any legal advice. We do know that many of the current debates happen around the so-called “border search exception,” which allows CBP to search and seize property at international borders. Even if the Fourth Amendment requires the government to have a warrant for searches, these protections don’t apply at the border, where a warrant is not needed to seize and inspect your property.

According to the EFF, "for now, a border agent has the legal authority to search your electronic devices at the border even if she has no reason to think that you’ve done anything wrong." We also know that legislative or judiciary attempts to restrict what border agents can do has not had much success so far. For more detailed information, I point readers to the EFF’s excellent Digital Privacy at the U.S. Border, in particular “Part 2: Constitutional Rights, Government Policies, and Privacy at the Border.”


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