U.S. border authorities conducted a substantially higher amount of electronic device searches in 2017 when compared to the prior year, according to the agency itself.
Part of the Department of Homeland Security, The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says, in 2016, 19,051 international travelers were forced to go through an electronics search. In 2017, 30,200 people underwent an official inspection of some device, marking a 58.5 percent increase in just one year.
CBP seems determined to argue that it’s a small portion of the overall amount of international travelers processed (more than 397 million), saying it only amounts to roughly 0.007 percent — which is up from 0.005 percent from the previous year.
“CBP is committed to preserving the civil rights and civil liberties of those we encounter, including the small number of travelers whose devices are searched,” said John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations. “In this digital age, border searches of electronic devices are essential to enforcing the law at the U.S. border and to protecting the American people.”
Despite any ostensible downplaying, the considerable uptick in searches seems to be part of a gradual change in policy now spanning two administrations.
The Trump administration has actively been forcing certain people, like foreigners, to hand over their cell phones and other similar devices upon visiting the U.S., according to multiple reports, so cell phone contacts and social media accounts can be perused. A very recently released directive outlines how searching devices are allowed, but not internal cloud accounts in which vast troves of data are usually stored. Also, CBP says it will do its best to not physically or mentally retain any various account passwords needed to access certain information.
These procedures, for the most part, take root in former President Barack Obama’s DHS. The CBP proposed a policy in August of 2016 that allows officials to request personal social media information.
The proposal would permit border officials to seek personal online information like Twitter and Facebook details because “collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity,” according to the federal register filing.
A coalition of 28 different human rights and civil liberties organizations stressed significant concerns over authorities insisting that tourists and immigrants reveal their “online presence.”
“The risk of discrimination based on analysis of social media content and connections is great and will fall hardest on Arab and Muslim communities whose usernames, posts, contacts and social networks will be exposed to intense scrutiny,” an official coalition letter in response to the proposal reads.
And the targets were often tailored. The Obama administration “added social media checks” to screening programs for people from majority-Muslim nations before Trump took office, internal documents obtained by The Daily Beast show.
So, overall, it appears that the surge in electronic device seizures was set up by the Obama administration, and perpetuated, even somewhat intensified, by the Trump administration.
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