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Surveillance State: Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Limit Phone Searches at the Border

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Carmen Cornejo
Written by Carmen Cornejo

Extreme vetting  is a Trumpian concept that applies to everybody except members of the Trump administration, who often are not qualified for their post (think Betsy DeVosor whose loyalty to the U.S. is being called into question due to frequent encounters with the Russians (like… almost everyone in the White House).

Through Customs and Border Protection’s ranks, “extreme vetting” started to take shape as soon as the new administration took power. It took the form of highly scrutinizing and aggressively questioning people at U.S. ports of entry, as well as detention and deportations.

CBP agents started to deny entrance to U.S. visitors and/or request cellphones and passwords for electronic devices to invade individuals’ information. Most alarming, even citizens and legal permanent residents have been requested to give up their cellphones and their privacy.

Statistics maintained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) show an increase in border searches of phones from 5,000 in all of 2015 to 5,000 just this past February.

You probably remember the case of Sidd Bikkannavar, a U.S.-born NASA scientist who flew back into the United States after spending a few weeks racing solar-powered cars in South America. CBP officials detained him at the airport until he surrendered his NASA-issued cellphone and his password. The phone contained sensitive information.

He is not the only case.

Now Republican and Democratic lawmakers want to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens’ cellphones at ports of entry by requiring a warrant before searching data held on electronic devices.

The concern is real. Statistics maintained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) show an increase in border searches of phones from 5,000 in all of 2015 to 5,000 just this past February. Official documents show the agency can extract data from some mobile devices.

The Constitution prohibits unreasonable stops and searches, but the border, checkpoints, and ports of entry are a no man’s land.

It is not clear whether the lawmakers in Washington have the support they need to pass this new legislation, and the laws regarding invasion of cellphone privacy are far from settled. Currently, there is no precedent in the courts on a case related to phones and electronic devices at the border.

How can you defend your privacy?

Experts are recommending traveling with the least amount of data possible or not bringing cellphones at ports of entry, especially if you carry confidential information, such as lawyers holding information about their clients or journalists protecting their sources.

They also suggest making things difficult for CBP officers by denying passwords (be prepared to be verbally attacked) or requesting a lawyer (expect to be detained).

It is recommended that people carrying sensitive information encrypt their hard drive with tools like BitLocker, TrueCrypt, or Apple’s Filevault, and choose a strong passphrase.

For more ideas to protect your data, read this geeky guide.

Unfortunately, if you are a visitor to the U.S. or not a citizen you need to comply with CBP officials’ request or confront possible denial of entry, or even deportation.

We will keep you posted on these and other interesting developments.