At Risk of Digital Strip Searches

The government has every right to comb through your phone. I’ve been aware of this issue — but I didn’t realize how aggressive those searches had become.

It was chilling in a “hairs standing on the base of your neck” kind of way.

The headline read “The Steady Rise of Digital Border Searches,” and as I read it, I wondered how society had willingly given up its right to privacy without so much as a longing look behind it.

So what was the article about?

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents — and the extraordinary increase in their intrusive digital searches.

See, there’s a gaping loophole in the Fourth Amendment that allows the government to dive through your belongings at border checkpoints without a warrant. They can ask for your smartphone and your pin number — and even your social media information.

To top it off, they have every right to read your text messages, view your photos and comb through anything else on your phone.

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I’ve been aware of this issue — but I didn’t realize just how aggressive those searches had become until reading this article.

On Tuesday, the CBP published new figures that reveal those invasive searches are on pace to quadruple since 2015. And this surge in digital strip searches was sparked long before Trump’s “extreme vetting” promises.

In fact, in the last six months, about 15,000 people had their devices invaded at the border. That’s a scary increase from the 8,503 searched from October 2014 to October 2015, and the 19,033 searched the year after.

Going by this pace — 30,000 travelers will have had their private devices rifled through by the end of the fiscal year. To put that into perspective, that’s an increase of one-third from last year. And this steady rise in searches is actually outpacing the yearly increase in international travelers.

As I mentioned, they don’t need a warrant — or, really, any reasonable suspicion — to dig through your data. And while I can appreciate the importance and delicate nature of national security — I’m deeply concerned about these aggressive increases and the lack of transparency involved.

It doesn’t matter if you have nothing to hide. When our privacy is invaded — so is our freedom of expression, association and assembly.

So I urge you to know your privacy rights as a U.S. citizen.

In theory, you can refuse to unlock your phone — border guards must eventually allow you into the country as a citizen. However, they can still detain you for hours longer than you’d like. And, of course, this can raise suspicions and cause them to seize your phone. Yes, they have to return it, but that could take months.

The ideal way to protect yourself from this invasion is to leave your phones and laptops at home — maybe even buy a burner phone for the trip. But I know that’s not terribly practical for most of us. So if you don’t want to anger Big Brother by refusing their search — the next step is to delete your data and apps beforehand.

Then you can simply reinstall them once you’re through the border checkpoint.

This is only skimming the surface of the continued infringements on our privacy in the name of national security, though. So please read up on other forms of surveillance out there — and how you can protect yourself.

You can start by clicking here for some easy tips and tricks, including how to encrypt your devices.

Big Brother might be watching — but we don’t have to make it easy for him. We need to fight these erosions of our freedoms because each failure to do so builds upon the last.

Catch you next week.

Regards,

Jessica Cohn-Kleinberg
Managing Editor, Banyan Hill Publishing