News

Phone Confiscations and Searches at the Border Are Skyrocketing

Published On 03/14/2017 Published On 03/14/2017

In the weeks since President Donald Trump first took executive action to significantly -- and controversially -- increase restrictions on immigration into the US, you may have noticed more and more stories about government agents confiscating and searching travelers' mobile phones at the border. Now, a new investigation appears to have confirmed the unsettling trend: phone confiscations and searches have skyrocketed this year

Department of Homeland Security data published in a report by NBC News this week shows that US Customs & Border Protection officers searched 5,000 devices in February of 2017 alone, which is more than the total devices searched in all of 2015. The sudden uptick comes after a fivefold year-over-year increase in 2016 of almost 25,000 device searches and this year could easily surpass that number. DHS officials anticipate 2017 will be a "blockbuster" year for such electronic screenings, according to the report. 

Of course, the legal practice of searching mobile devices started long before Trump came along and were already on the rise before he was elected, but the NBC News report indicates the president's executive actions on immigration and rhetoric about Muslims during the 2016 campaign "seems to have emboldened federal agents to act more forcefully." In fact, NBC examined 25 cases in which CBP officers forced American citizens to hand over and unlock their devices at airports and border crossings, and found that 23 of them were Muslim. One man was even put in a chokehold for refusing to give up his phone. 

A few other factors have also contributed to increases, according to the report:

"The more aggressive tactics of the past two years, two senior intelligence officials told NBC News, were sparked by a string of domestic incidents in 2015 and 2016 in which the watch list system and the FBI failed to stop American citizens from conducting attacks. The searches also reflect new abilities to extract contact lists, travel patterns and other data from phones very quickly."

In case you were wondering, Borders and Customs agents can search you and confiscate your stuff at airports and border crossings without the having to meet the requirement of at least reasonable suspicion that's normally needed for such searches within the US. They even have the right to take your devices for five days without any justification, although officials must return them to you if they lack probable cause, according to the report. In other words, there's a chance your experience crossing the border -- even as an American citizen -- can be a complete nightmare and potentially a days-long pain in the ass, so if you're traveling internationally any time soon, you may want to brace yourself.

Be sure to check out the full NBC News story for more details you need to know, including current efforts to change the existing policy and anecdotes from Americans who have faced the intense searches. 

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Tony Merevick is Cities News Editor at Thrillist and certainly wouldn't be pleased with having to hand over his phone. Send news tips to news@thrillist.com and follow him on Twitter @tonymerevick.

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