Each year, the data of more than 10,000 passenger devices would be copied by US customs. This practice has drawn the attention of Congress and some lawmakers denounce a violation of the rights of Americans.
U.S. government officials, through customs, copy data from 10,000 travelers’ electronic devices each year at U.S. airports and borders, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden says in a press release, picked up by the American press.
This interference is not new, but two new details, provided by the senator, have aroused the concern of the American Congress: the rapid expansion of the database and the possibility for the 2,700 agents to access it without a warrant, report it washington post. Congress wonders what use the government can make of this information, much of which comes from people not suspected of a crime.
In effect, an agent can access any device even if they don’t suspect the traveler. It has the ability to view contact lists, calendar entries, messages, photos and videos. If officers suspect the traveler poses a national security concern, they can perform an advanced search, connecting the phone to a device that copies its contents. This data is then stored in an automated targeting system, which can be consulted at any time. The data is kept for 15 years.
According to data from the customs agency, about 37,000 searches were carried out during the 12-month period while more than 179 million people traveled during this period.
Is it legal?
Appliance inspection is a controversial practice since a long time. The customs services defend this practice as a means of prosecuting possible threats to security. Problem, the 2700 agents have access to this data as an open source, searchable without public surveillance.
Law enforcement must persuade a judge to approve a search warrant before searching Americans’ phones. But the courts have long granted border officials an exception and allow them to search devices without a warrant or suspicion of a violation.
Privacy advocates and some lawmakers warn it could be a violation of Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights to unreasonable search and seizure. American travelers are not always aware of the practices carried out by the police, practices to which they do not necessarily consent.
Echoes of the Snowden affair
These revelations echo the Snowden case which unfolded in 2013. The whistleblower revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was storing millions of phone records of Americans as part of a surveillance initiative. targeting suspected terrorists.
The NSA terminated the program in 2019, saying some of the data had been collected in error and the system had not been that useful in tracking down terrorists or fighting crime.