Jan 25, 2018
By Chris Robinson
Can US Border Guards examine your phone and your laptop computer? Until now, travellers’ rights in this area have not been clearly understood. In fact, it has been a specific concern of us media folk who often travel to the US with confidential material on our laptops, including journalist sources.
Well…thanks to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, we now know where we stand and can act accordingly.
Earlier this month the Senator took advantage of a US Senate hearing to quiz Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen about the details of a new policy issued earlier this month that allows customs agents to examine the cellphones of travellers at the border.
The Secretary of Homeland Security provided details about the policy. Searches of phones at the border increased nearly 60 percent from 2016. Still just a tiny proportion of all travellers…but that doesn’t help if you are one of them.
Worryingly, agents can demand a passcode to open your phone without probable cause, connect a phone to a hard drive and copy its contents for analysis… although this requires the approval of a supervisor. If they can’t access a device, officers can detain it for a multi-day period.
There are limits however. Confiscations of devices beyond five days must be approved by management. Agents can’t just start downloading old files from the cloud; indeed, they can’t use the phone to access anything that might be stored remotely. And proprietary business information, and journalists’ notes must be handled in accordance with existing US law.
So here’s the advice – before crossing the border, delete private material or transfer it to the cloud; at the border, turn on airplane mode and be prepared – unless you have some really compelling privacy reason – to just turn over your phone if asked. This is the new reality with US travel.